‘Everybody deserves a second chance’: Even with a labor shortage, workers with criminal records face barriers to jobs

All Joe Ellis wants now is a chance to work.Years removed from a minor criminal offense that turned his life upside down, he wants nothing more than to return to the workforce. But even as companies nationwide bemoan a shortage of available workers, Ellis, a Pittsburgh resident and trained chef, has been turned down for every position he’s applied to in the last year.Ellis, 49, lost his most recent job at a warehouse in July 2020. Now he’s searching for work in food preparation or youth counseling, both reflective of his previous work experience, but he’s come up short. 

“I’m to the point where I’m about to give up hope,” he said. 


Joe Ellis. (Courtesy photo)

His experience isn’t unusual, even in today’s upside-down job market. Though many businesses struggle to find workers — even advertising $15 an hour for jobs that typically pay less — residents with criminal records and their advocates in the Pittsburgh area say opportunities aren’t always reaching people who have spent time in the justice system. 

It’s an incongruity that pokes holes in a common narrative about the labor shortage: that workers are unwilling, or unmotivated, to return to work during the pandemic. And it shows how stigma and other barriers can prevent people with criminal records from finding work, even as employers struggle to fill jobs.

“There’s still work to be done … to really allow them to see this untapped talent, and this untapped workforce,” said Abby Wolensky, director of the McKeesport-based Employment Institute at Auberle. “It’s just always been a challenge.”

Credit: (Photo via Adobe Stock)

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