Mayor Rick Kriseman announces fair hiring practices in St. Pete

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Mayor Rick Kriseman and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin announced their initiatives for fair hiring practices in St. Petersburg today. They pledge for St. Pete  to be a “City of Opportunity.” On January 1st, 2015, they are “banning the box.” There will no longer be a box on job applications requiring individuals to disclose prior convictions. Ban the Box, founded in 2004 has already been adopted in 70 cities and states. It is a nationwide campaign to end discriminatory hiring practices. It provides a way for job seekers to display themselves, their skill sets and potential. It will make it easier for them to reintegrate into society as working class, tax paying citizens.

The impact of discrimination towards those with a conviction history affects all aspects of their lives. One in four adults in the U.S. has a conviction history. They are not allowed to vote. In many instances, they are not permitted to rent or buy homes or cars, and many employers simply won’t welcome them with even an interview, once they have checked the box. Many of these people are parents who need to provide for their families.

“If you reach beyond our bustling downtown, beyond the beauty of Beach Drive and our explosive art scene, you will see a lurking reality that stands between our city and its best future. More than 60,000 of our neighbors live in poverty and there are 2,500 homeless children in Pinellas,” says Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin. She urges the community not to leave them behind. She says everyone deserves the opportunity and ability to earn a living wage.

Some cities and states have extended the ban the box policy for not just city employees, but also for contract and private employers. Kriseman says, “While we are not taking that step today, I am hopeful that our organization, the City of St. Petersburg, will set an example for other employers in our community.”

Michael Jalazo, Executive Director of the Pinellas Ex-offenders Reentry Coalition (PERK), hopes for St.Pete to serve as a pilot for success in Florida’s efforts for fair hiring practices. He says that yesterday with the help of fifty-six other organizations at PERK’s 18th annual showcase of services at Pinellas technical college of St. Petersburg campus, they provided service and guidance to over 500 families of ex-offenders or ex-offenders themselves. “Our goal for PERK is to help ex-offenders become and remain successful in our community,” he says.

Jalazo says that in the coming days, “You will hear more about what we have titled the Dr. David T Welch Center for Progress and Community Development that we are opening on the 16th street corridor.” The center will provide more jobs and opportunities ex-offenders. “The key to ex-offenders remaining ex-offenders is employment,” he added. Removing the ex-offender box is not intended to remove disclosure, but to create the opportunity for people to present their job qualifications first. He says, “It’s about human intervention.”

When asked how this policy will affect juveniles with criminal records, Councilman Wengay Newton says the city arrests 200 juveniles a month, that’s 65,000 juveniles every year. “The 2014 fiscal year budget for beds in these institutions was $185,000, and for 2015 the budget is $196,000. The kids work hard in jail. It’s cash for kids. Florida is the only state that retains juvenile records.” Once the record is there, it is there forever, so it’s difficult even for juveniles to find work. “Checking the box is one thing, a background check is another thing. They will suffer for what they did now in their adult life.” He says that when people exiting the juvenile detention and prison system are given nothing to get out with, they are destined to come back.

Background checks will remain permissible, but Jalazo says, “If I can go one on one with someone and explain to them what my skill sets are, what value I bring, what my history is instead of just trying to write something on a piece of paper, then I might have a better chance at getting a job. That’s what it’s about,” he says. In terms of juveniles in the criminal justice system, and the reentry program, it is a perplexing situation. “There are a lot of federal and local funds put toward youthful offenders and youthful employment, but the irony of the juvenile system is that we seem to always struggle to find enough juveniles to participate in our programs. We need to do a better job of connecting the kids themselves,” says Jalazo. He says that this year PERK is going to work with the Pinellas County School Board on youthful reentry programs. “If we can change opportunities when people are young we will have a better shot, he says.” He wants to emulate Chief Anthony Holloway’s innovative and successful Clearwater youth reentry program.

LaShanna Tyson, lead organizer for Faith in Florida Living Free campaign, is a Florida real-estate agent and paralegal student at Seminole State College. She is an Orlando resident and mother of three. After spending thirteen years in prison, she was a victim of all of the barriers to reintegration into society. Upon release she was put on a bus by herself and sent to a work release center in Pinellas. Tyson says, “I can tell you, that was a scary thing. I didn't know how to use the bus. I can tell you that coming from prison after any amount of time, the things that we need the most, are jobs. In prison we work so hard for free. Not because we want to, but because we have to. The same jobs that we did in there for free, we come home, and we can’t get those jobs here, because of a box that relegates us to second class citizenship, in a State where we have been incarcerated.”

Tyson says that it was a reality check when she moved home to Orlando and could not even find the kind of work she found in Pinellas. She says the box prevented her from being able to go back to college or get a job. “It hurts so bad when you want to do the right thing and you can’t. They released me with no way to succeed out here,” she says.

After becoming a licensed Realtor, Tyson thought the “chains were broken,” until she sold her first house and tried to rent an apartment with her first commission check. The application had the same box. She was told that because of her past conviction she could not rent for 99 years. “I can sell all the houses that I want, but I can’t rent an apartment. I am a felon first and foremost over a Realtor.” says Tyson.

Tyson says the experience motivated her. She says that when she spoke to other incarcerated mothers who had been released but ended up in prison again within a year, she would ask them why, and they would tell her that it is easier in prison than it is on the outside. “Prison is a horrible place. I realized that somebody had to fight for us. There are two million people in the State of Florida with felony convictions,” she says.

“We want to change Florida’s constitution so that when we have completed our sentences, our rights are automatically restored. Here is my message to anybody who can vote- don’t just sit back, come out and vote. There is a reason they take the right to vote away from us. To every person with a felony conviction, don’t believe when they tell you you can’t vote. I took 26 people to the primaries. I can’t vote, but my friends and family can, says Tyson.”

Mayor Kriseman also announced a $12.50 minimum wage for full time city employees. Part time employees with at least five years of service to the city will also receive $12.50 an hour. “This proposal has also been extended to our Public Employees Union. This number is roughly the middle ground between the $10.10 supported by President Obama and the $15 suggested by many of our employees,” says Kriseman.

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