Cassandra Hawes looks for jobs online. (File/FOX Carolina)
GREENVILLE, SC (FOX Carolina) -
High unemployment rates continue to plague the country - by the end of June, the U.S. unemployment rate sat at just more than 8 percent. South Carolina's was higher, at 9.1, and North Carolina, at 9.4 percent.
Those numbers can be overwhelming for any job seeker, but imagine having a criminal background. Many employers won't hire convicted felons, leaving them scrambling to make ends meet.
But there are plans in the works to get non-violent offenders back on the payroll, but it may take a while.
Cassandra Hawes, of Greenwood, has been trying for more than a year to get a decent job. She said she applies for multiple jobs a day, and sometimes even interviews, but then is turned down because she has a criminal background.
Hawes has a record in South Carolina - a list of misdemeanors dating back to the 90s. She said it's the felony she was convicted of in 2008, criminal conspiracy, that continues to plague her job search.
Hawes said she was in the car with someone who was arrested on drug charges, and potential employers tell her that charge is the problem.
"They say the charge is not violent, non drug related, why is it hindering me from getting a job if it's not violent and not drug related?" Hawes asked.
The job search isn't just a struggle for Hawes. Corinne Davis, with Greenville's SC Works, a state-run unemployment office, said she sees this every day. She said competition is especially stiff because so many people are out of work during this recession.
Legally, companies have to interview a person with the right credentials for a job, but Davis said internal policies may keep them from actually hiring a convict.
Davis said groups like the National Employment Law Project are trying to rectify the issue. NELP reports that one in four Americans have arrest and conviction records, which means more than a million people in America may be discriminated against during the job search.
In South Carolina, of all the people with criminal backgrounds, only a third are still in jail, which is more than 20,000.
The Department of Probation and Parole sees another third. At any given time, the PPP reports supervising about 32,000.
The rest of those with backgrounds have served their debt to society, but still have the criminal record that hinders their job search.
Even in Columbia, state leaders see the problem. Sen. Darrell Jackson (D-District 21) sponsored a bill this past session that would allow all non-violent offenders to go before the pardon and parole board to be given the chance to clear their records.
"If these people are not able to find meaningful employment, they're going to resort to old criminal activities," Jackson said.
The state department of corrections reports that 85 percent of those locked up will likely end up back in jail at some point for getting back into crime.
Jackson's bill didn't make it past the senate subcommittee this year, but he said that he plans to re-introduce the bill next year. Jackson said he will start earlier and work harder to get it passed.
Davis said she does hear about employers in the area who do hire candidates with tarnished backgrounds.
Confluence Watersports is the largest kayak and canoe manufacturer in the world. The company merged from eight smaller ones and last November, moving its headquarters and factory to Greenville.
Confluence Watersports' human resources vice president Shane Cobb said they receive hundreds of applicants a week and they sift through resumes to look for relevant experience first.
Cobb said they look at the whole person to see whether they can pass the training program, whether they hope to work in an office or on the factory floor.
Applicants need to share if they have a criminal background, but while hiring, Cobb said he looks at the severity of the offense, how long it's been since the offense happened and what the applicant has done since.
Cobb said relevant experience is the most important thing they search for in a candidate.
"A good employee who may have made a mistake in the past is still a good employee if they're contributing and performing [now]," Cobb said.
Other companies we heard were friendly in their hiring practices did not respond to our request for comment.
But Cassandra Hawes will continue digging through the classifieds and asking around to land a gig near her home in Greenwood.
"I want a job that I can be happy with, [and] know that it's going to take care of me and my family," Hawes said.
The U.S. Labor Department has begun federal improvements. In May, it introduced new guidelines for local workforce development centers, like SC Works, to help local employers make job postings fair, without shutting out job-seekers with criminal records.
Copyright 2012 FOX Carolina (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.
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