Radames Lopez is a 24-year-old lifelong Holyoke resident with a six month old daughter. He’s unemployed and every day is a struggle to find work because of his felony criminal record.
“They’re not going to call me back … I can’t even go into the Army even if I want to because I’ve got felonies,” Lopez said following a Holyoke City Council meeting this month.
Lopez spoke during the public comment portion of the Holyoke City Council’s June 6 meeting to support the “Ban the Box” initiative, which would prevent city employers from asking job applicants about their criminal records.
Sitting on a bench outside the Holyoke City Council chamber room, Lopez told the Valley Advocate about his two prison sentences. He was behind bars for two-and-a-half years at Hampden County Jail in Ludlow on charges related to breaking and entering into a residence. And 13 months after he served that sentence, in April 2014, he was arrested in Cape Cod on charges stemming from gang-related trafficking of heroin, for which he served two more years.
“Every time I go get an interview they’re asking me every single detail and why did I get locked up? So now if I tell you — being honest out of my heart — why I got locked, now you’re brain automatically starts judging me,” Lopez said.
Lopez isn’t alone — many people who’ve served prison time find themselves unemployable upon their release.
More than half of the unemployed population in Springfield — 2,150 people — could be automatically disqualified from getting a job at the MGM casino, slated to open in late-2018, under the current state gaming laws, according to MGM research performed to help change the Massachusetts gaming law.
With 3,000 jobs up for grabs at the $950 million MGM resort-style casino being built in downtown Springfield, the new opportunities would hopefully put a dent in the city’s high unemployment rate of 5.2 percent — about double the state average. However, due to the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) and Massachusetts gaming laws, people with criminal records are unlikely to get casino jobs.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno is advocating that the state Legislature amend the CORI law to give non-violent offenders who served time in jail a better chance at obtaining work at a casino — an idea MGM has supported publicly.
MGM Springfield President Mike Mathis told the Gaming Commission a “one-size-fits-all” approach to job applicants — holding a dishwasher to the same criminal background checking standards as someone in a management position — is an issue that needs to be addressed before MGM starts to interview applicants.
“If the commission continues its current practice come the summer of next year we will likely end up in the unimaginable predicament of being forced to interview and give conditional offers of employment to applicants who we know will be rejected by your staff,” Mathis told the commissioners.
Mayor Sarno views himself as a “law and order mayor” and believes his stance surprised many people when he announced that he supported giving individuals with a criminal record a chance to work at a casino during the Massachusetts Gaming Commission’s meeting on May 27.
“We all know people — whether family or friends — that have made some mistakes, but have done the right thing for a number of years,” Sarno said. “And if they’ve earned the opportunity, they should be given an opportunity within the stringent requirements of the gaming rules and regulations and obviously the financial regulations.”
When asked if he’d apply for a job at MGM next year when the casino opens, Lopez said, “I would love that. I love playing with cards. I wouldn’t mind doing that to support myself.”
But state laws automatically disqualify felons from jobs that require gaming employee licenses if they’ve been convicted within the last 10 years for crimes such as embezzlement, theft, fraud, or perjury. A gaming license is required for employment in any job that has access to restricted areas of a casino or anyone who participates in conducting games.
The gaming laws also state the Massachusetts Gaming Commission can accept or deny an applicant for a gaming employee license or for a gaming service job based on whether they pass a criminal background check.
This law means the nearly 3,000 people in Hampden County with criminal records and close to 200 people with misdemeanors, would be ineligible for employment, according to MGM data.
In Massachusetts, job seekers with criminal records do have some of the protections people who have never spent a day behind bars enjoy, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law protects all job applicants from discrimination, but employers can disqualify felons for positions depending on the nature and gravity of the offenses, what kind of jobs they are applying for, and how much time has passed since the offenses.
Kevin Lynn, executive director of FutureWorks Career Center in Springfield, sent a letter to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission on May 8 advocating for a change in the gaming law’s provisions for hiring felons.
“A strict application of the automatic criminal background disqualification could close the door on the opportunity for those wishing to rebuild lives that have gone off track,” he wrote. “Limiting their ability to land gainful employment, thus deepening the cycle of poverty and desperation that is likely to result in illegal behavior. The best anti-poverty program is a job.”
At the state level, action by politicians is being taken on changing the laws — but will it come soon enough?
State Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, (D-Amherst), said one of the state Legislature’s main goals is to reform criminal justice in Massachusetts by the end of the current legislative session — July 31, 2018.
“We need to continue to work on reducing mandatory minimums so we incarcerate fewer people, but now especially because we’ve legalized recreational marijuana in the state,” he said. “We need expungement to be able to wipe away records for minor and modest offenses that were illegal at one time and that are no longer illegal under current law.”
Rosenberg supports the idea of allowing people with criminal records to work at a casino, but also thinks there should be levels of precaution in place.
“We have to ensure that the employees who work there are people whose backgrounds are appropriate for the venue,” he said.
State Sen. Eric Lesser, (D-Longmeadow), whose district includes the city of Springfield, said he believes the United States went overboard in the War on Drugs and people who have served their time for nonviolent offenses suffer economic disadvantages and a lack of opportunities after their release from prison.
“We have to end the revolving door, which is people going to prison then they get released back out to society and there’s very limited job prospects … People then fall back into bad behavior and end up back in prison,” he said.
It’s critical that the state act on revising laws related to gaming, CORI, and criminal justice in the next year because new laws need to be in place before MGM starts hiring people, Lesser said.
“They’re going to doing the bulk of the hiring in the months leading up to the opening and then just after the opening … I hope we’ll move quickly on it. It’s very important for Springfield; our community; and criminal justice, frankly,” he said.
A website called SkillSmart Seeker lists many of the jobs that MGM, including jobs as a bartender, card dealer, accounting manager, warehouse worker, baker, banquet chef, cage manager, butcher, a casino porter, clerk, concierge, floral designer, and in fields such as Information Technology and security.
Eighty percent of the jobs would be full-time, and 20 percent would be part-time, Wanda Gispert, regional vice president for talent and workforce development at MGM Resorts International, said. Although Gispert did not provide the number of jobs available for each field, she said most of the jobs at MGM would be in areas such as gaming and food and beverage services.
“There will be preference to Springfield residents in terms of opportunity,” she said. “I think a lot of people might not be aware that you don’t need specific casino-resort experience. There’s a lot of transferable fields, especially when you look at accounting and HR, and IT, and finance.”
Eric Bauer, a senior organizer with Western Mass Jobs with Justice, a worker’s rights organization, said he believes the jobs that MGM creates will have affordable wages — of at least $15 an hour — and long lasting in the region based on the casinos the company has established elsewhere.
“They seem to be making the right moves here,” Bauer said. “That being said, they are a corporation and their main objective is money. They’re not coming in here for the explicit purpose of benefiting the city — they’re coming in here to make money.”
One out of every three people in the United States has a criminal record. Felons account for 70 to 100 million Americans, according to a study called “Americans with Criminal Records” by The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group aimed at reforming the criminal justice system.
More than 60 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals remain unemployed a year after being released and 87 percent of employers in the U.S. conduct background checks on applicants, according to the study.
As of March 2017, there were 4,355 people unemployed in Springfield and 11,706 people unemployed in Hampden County, according to data from MGM in a document detailing criminal background disqualification under the state’s gaming act. An average of 215 felons are released annually who reside in Springfield — a rate that’s more than twice the average in Hampden County and 3.6 times the state average.
The Dartmouth Psychiatric Research Center surveyed 128 businesses in 2009 — compiling data for a study called “Employer Surveys Regarding Employment of People with Criminal Histories.” Sixty-three percent of employers interviewed for the study said they knowingly hired at least one person with a felony.
The most common reasons for hiring a person with a felony were that the person had the qualifications for the job, they presented well in an interview, the applicant had a connection to someone who knew the employer that could vouch for the them, or the employer believed the applicant had changed his or her life, the authors of the study said.
“More than half of the employers said that the type of conviction mattered to them,” the executive summary of the study states. “Specifically, they were most concerned about theft and financial crimes, followed by sex offenses, violent crimes, and crimes against children.”
The majority of employers interviewed that worked at businesses in auto services, delivery, retail stores, and fast food restaurants said they did not have a strict policy about hiring people with felonies and, instead, relied on a case-by-case basis approach.
Career Point, a nonprofit organization in the city of Holyoke, helps people seeking work improve their job interviewing skills and helps those with criminal records find jobs. Axel Fontanez, a workforce development specialist with Career Point, said it’s not uncommon for people to leave prison and have difficulty finding work, but whether or not someone finds a job upon their release has a lot to do with the individual as well — they need to be prepared to go on job interviews and have professional attire, he said.
Fontanez said he has struggled in attempts to find a job because of his own criminal background. He was released from prison nearly a decade ago after spending three years behind bars for illegal possession of a firearm.
“Nobody was biting and I had office experience; I had construction experience; I had worked at different places as assistant managers and car dealerships as a service adviser,” he said. “I had all this experience in customer service, yet about 40 people — they wouldn’t consider me. It wasn’t until I overheard someone talking about a [job] at Denny’s washing dishes and I jumped on it.”
Career Point hosted a job fair called “Hot Dogs for Hot Jobs Job Fair” on June 9 at Heritage State Park in Holyoke and among the dozens of people speaking with recruiters two people shared their stories about what it’s like to be a felon looking for work.
Edgar Zayas, a 23-year-old Holyoke resident, works at Friendly’s as a cook and was only able to get the job because his ex-girlfriend vouched for him.
“It was difficult to get any jobs around,” he said. “I applied for a couple jobs and called. And nothing.”
Zayas served a 29-month sentence for armed assault to murder and assault with a dangerous weapons, he said. He fired shots at pedestrians crossing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge bordering South Hadley and Holyoke in 2014. Although no one was injured, the “what if” scenario is still in his thoughts. He said he’d smoked a PCP-laced cigarette given to him by a friend and in that state decided to shoot at cars on the bridge.
“I almost killed a little girl. The only thing that saved her was a bullet hit the magnet in the speaker of the car. That’s the only thing that saved her,” he said. “She’d be dead right now.”
Although he’s currently employed, Zayas said he would be interested in working at a restaurant at the casino.
Joseph Kane, 23, of Holyoke, served a two-and-a-half year sentence for armed robbery. After being released in 2015, he’s continuing to look for work.
“Being on probation, a lot of jobs don’t hire me,” Kane said. Though he does get interviews. “A lot of places — they don’t dismiss it right off the bat. They just let it run through. When the CORI comes back, and knowing then that they’re not CORI-friendly, they pretty much just waste my time.
“I try, but at the end of the day nothing works out.”
Chris Goudreau can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.