Want a Job but Have a Record? Who Cares? You’re Hired.

A bakery epitomizes a Zen-inspired approach to hiring: Don’t ask about an applicant’s past. It’s the future that counts.

Tina Rosenberg

By Tina Rosenberg

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Greyston Bakery in Yonkers.CreditCreditMaurisse Johnson

If you want a job at Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, N.Y., just north of the Bronx, it’s yours. There’s no background check, drug test, credit check or call to references. Greyston won’t even interview you. You just go into the bakery and put your name and contact information on a list. When a job comes open and your name is next, you start work as a paid apprentice.

Greyston was founded in 1982 by Bernie Glassman, a Buddhist Zen master from Brooklyn. He had opened a small bakery and cafe to support a community of Zen students. The mayor of Yonkers — which at the time claimed to have the highest rate of homelessness in America — invited Mr. Glassman to move there. Following the Buddhist principle of non-judgment, the bakery hired local residents who wanted work, no questions asked. Greyston Foundation, which owns the bakery, also runs community programs, such as supportive housing, job training and community gardens.

The bakery (it’s actually a factory — there are no rolling pins here) supplies all the brownies for Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream. You can buy Greyston’s brownies in Whole Foods and Wegman’s, and Delta gives them out on flights. All 71 workers on the bakery production line got there through open hiring. The bakery has been profitable since 2009.

In June 2018, Greyston founded the Center for Open Hiring, to help other businesses adopt the practice. “Drug testing, background checks, credit checks, those industries become massive drains on organizations,” said Mike Brady, the president and chief executive of Greyston. “These have become practices people don’t question. Let’s question them.”

He cited job interviews as one example. “The candidate may not be so great at making eye contact and smiling. Does that mean he can’t stack brownies onto a pallet?

“What are you looking for with a background check? We do it because it’s been done for the last 20 years. Is it giving you the right kind of talent? Let’s use those dollars to do an inclusive hiring model and train people rather than worry about the past. Worry about the future.”

Now is the time. With unemployment so low, businesses are waiting weeks or months to fill open positions — if they can fill them at all.

So there’s finally real business interest in the 30 percent of adults in America who have a criminal record, which the F.B.I. defines as an arrest on a felony charge. That’s about 70 million people, three-quarters of them never convicted. No precise national data is available, but a study by a professor at the University of Georgia, using 2010 numbers, estimated that 19 million Americans had felony convictions.

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Greyston Bakery’s production line.CreditMaurisse Johnson

The scarcity of workers has coincided with a national shift in attitudes toward hiring people with criminal backgrounds. It’s part of the larger movement against mass incarceration, perhaps the only issue in America that’s truly bipartisan. Conservative advocates have been particularly influential in red states — prominent among them, the brothers Charles and David Koch.

The Koch brothers’ campaign is largely the work of Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel of Koch Industries. Mr. Holden’s interest in prison reform began during college, when he worked as a prison guard. “Most of the people I met who are in prison are really good people who made a mistake,” he said. “Most were there for drugs. Back then there was no such thing as a second chance. My life was just starting to move forward — and they were done. There but for the grace of God go all of us.”

One result of the changing attitudes is the recent proliferation of “Ban the Box” laws, which prohibit putting an item like “check this box if you have a criminal record” on a job application. Employers can still ask about criminal history, but only later in the hiring process, after they’ve gotten to know a candidate.

Businesses have been reluctant to hire people with criminal backgrounds for many reasons: they fear these workers might steal, wouldn’t persist in the job, or lack work skills. Some managers fear they would lose customers if word got out.

Only a few studies have examined these concerns. One looked at America’s largest employer: the United States military. The study found that soldiers with a felony conviction were promoted more quickly and to higher ranks than others and show no differences in dropout rates or rates of discharge for negative reasons.

Northwestern University researchers found that the turnover rate is about 13 percent lower for employees with records — possibly because they know the value of that job and how hard it is to find another one. This matters to businesses, since turnover is costly: $3,520 to replace an $11-an-hour worker.

Research from the Charles Koch Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management debunked the notion that businesses will lose customers if they hire workers with records. Quite the contrary — three-quarters of people surveyed felt comfortable with such businesses. Workers and managers did, too — they were overwhelmingly willing or open to hiring and working alongside people with records. The Society also designed a step-by-step hiring guidebook for businesses.

The Johns Hopkins Health System has hired more than 1,000 people with criminal backgrounds at its hospitals and clinics in Maryland and Florida. Joseph Phelps, a former police detective who supervises these hires, said that only one has turned out to be a problem.

Mr. Phelps said the key to that success is that Johns Hopkins hires people trained and vetted by Our Daily Bread Employment Center, Helping Up Mission and Turnaround Tuesday. These organizations work with Baltimore’s recently released prisoners, especially on the soft skills needed to get and keep a job: how to shake hands, deal with feedback, navigate a bus schedule.

Erin Patinkin is a co-founder and chief executive of Ovenly, a bakery in Brooklyn where 30 percent of the bakers have criminal records. Like Johns Hopkins, Ovenly counts on community groups to train and recommend workers. “If we have a job opening, we can find staff. In a market like New York, that’s a huge benefit,” Ms. Patinkin said.

I asked her if she worried that employees with criminal backgrounds would steal. “I think that’s silly,” she replied.

Open hiring is a new and uncomfortable idea in the business world. Mr. Brady, Greyston’s chief executive, urges nervous businesses to start with just one employee.

Here’s how open hiring works at Greyston: A few times a year, Greyston calls the people at the top of the list and invites them in; the number depends on which jobs are open, but it’s often around 10. Workers can wait a long time for that call, which means that those who still need a job months after signing up are among the hardest to employ.

They learn about the work and what they need to do to be successful, the pay (just above minimum to start, but with rapid raises) and benefits (excellent, and it’s a union shop).

The next day, they start a paid apprenticeship that usually lasts six months — more if needed. They shadow employees to learn how to use the machines, and study food safety and soft skills. About 40 percent of apprentices finish and graduate into permanent jobs, Mr. Brady said.

Mr. Brady has said that it costs about $1,900 to train a new employee. (That figure includes their pay for only the first month of the apprenticeship. After that they are considered productive workers.) And Greyston does no recruiting or vetting — processes that cost other businesses some $1,400 per worker, he said. Mr. Brady said Greyston’s turnover is the same as the industry average.

For open hiring to succeed, workers need plenty of support. But any worker in any business can fall behind on car payments, get evicted, drop the ball on child care or suffer serious health problems. All these things affect job performance.

Businesses can say “it’s not my problem.” But it is if they want to retain their workers.

Ty Hookway, the founder and president of CleanCraft in Rochester, N.Y., was visiting the Center for Open Hiring when I went to Yonkers; CleanCraft is one of the first business affiliates of the Center. About 10 percent of the employees in his cleaning company have criminal records, he said — including a man who served time for bank robbery and has since worked at the company for 26 years. Mr. Hookway considers him the most valuable employee he ever hired.

He said that he used to personally call around to help employees, whether or not they had a record, to find apartments or set up payment plans for traffic tickets so they could reclaim their licenses and drive to work. Mr. Brady persuaded him to partner with a social services agency to do that, Mr. Hookway said, adding that “Mike has a formal process for what I was doing ad hoc.”

Greyston has a social worker on site. Elena Paulino works for Westchester Jewish Community Services from her office in the bakery’s tiny attic. If employees need therapy, transportation, housing, child care or anything else that can get in the way of work, Ms. Paulino connects them to the services they need.

One worker, Jennifer Jorge, credits Ms. Paulino with saving her job. She’s been at Greyston two and a half years. She dropped out of school at 14 and had done time. “I was the black sheep in my family — stupid decisions, bad choices in men,” she said.

Jennifer Jorge has been at Greyston for two and a half years.CreditMaurisse Johnson

Her apprenticeship started badly. She had no car and walked 30 minutes each way to the bakery. She was recovering from a relationship in which her husband was verbally abusive, she said. She kept leaving work early. “In the past I had suffered from mental health issues,” she said. “I was in a dark place and bringing that to work with me.”

Most businesses would have fired her. Greyston gave her days off to address her problems and special coaching. Every afternoon, she checked in with a human resources manager who helped her through her anxiety and allowed her to understand her strengths. “They told me: ‘we see things in you,’” Ms. Jorge said. ‘We’re going to put the work aside right now and get you what you need.’” Ms. Paulino got her a therapist. “She opened my eyes to a lot of things. I was able to stop all the nonsense and keep my job.”

“Our interest is making sure they come to work and are successful,” Mr. Brady said. “We don’t care what the problem is. We need to help them overcome it. The country spends $3 billion every year to filter people out of the work force. Let’s use that to welcome people in and give them help and make them successful.”

Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism.” She is a former editorial writer for The Times and the author, most recently, of “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” and the World War II spy story e-book “D for Deception.”

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