Gary Westbrook had been a nurse for more than 25 years. He was nominated for a paraprofessional award at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 1989. He was honorably discharged from the Army after 11 years of service in 2000.
“I had an excellent career,” he said.
However, Westbrook said he made a mistake when he faced tough times several years ago.
“My family life was breaking apart, and I made a stupid mistake, and it has cost me dearly,” he said.
Westbrook was convicted of credit card fraud in 2009, a mark on his record that he said has kept him out of work for about a year.
He spent two months in jail and another five months as a resident in the Pre-Release and Reentry Services Division of the Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation.
Westbrook later was hired as a nursing manager at the Montgomery Village Health Care Center in Gaithersburg, but he was unable to keep the job when it came time to renew his nursing license. The fact he committed a felony means his case requires further investigation before he can get reinstated and continue working as a nurse, he said.
Westbrook said that, in the meantime, he has applied for jobs at places including Lowe’s, Kohl’s and Jerry’s Subs & Pizza, but says his resume packet does not usually make it past the front desk, and he has not yet met a manager face to face.
He said he thinks it is because he has indicated on his applications that he has a criminal background.
“Once they see that one glitch you have, they don’t want to take the chance on you,” Westbrook said.
The job search
The county’s Pre-Release and Reentry Services Division accepts certain convicted and sentenced individuals from the county, state and federal levels who are scheduled to be released within a certain time period. These individuals participate in the division’s program and meet requirements such as working, paying room and board and filing taxes while also creating a reentry plan with the center’s staff members that includes areas such as housing, medical services — and employment.
The center’s staff works with the residents to help prepare them for a job search and the challenges they might face because they have a criminal background.
The division’s chief, Stefan LoBuglio, said at a Sept. 20 discussion event at the center that it is not a matter of asking for “special consideration” for the residents from employers, but rather “fair and appropriate review.”
LoBuglio said the residents currently are taking longer to secure jobs, working less hours, and often working at minimum wage levels.
He told The Gazette that about 85 percent of the residents leave with employment. Many of the residents are hired for positions including grocery store employees, landscapers, servers, plumbers, electricians, some white collar positions, and some return to a job they previously had.
“It’s tough out there for everybody,” LoBuglio said, including employers who have limited time and money.
He said there are cases where employers might dismiss candidates with criminal backgrounds “when candidates are plentiful.”
LoBuglio said that the center will help facilitate the hiring process after a resident finds a job they want.
“We have the resident sell themselves, and then we engage the employers,” LoBuglio said.
A problem the center faces in reaching out to area employers about the center and its residents, LoBuglio said, is “where do we begin with so many employers.”
Sylvia Hernandez, the center’s senior work release coordinator, helps the residents develop and strengthen skills that can aid their employment search, such as creating a resume, interviewing and building relationships with potential employers.
Hernandez said the amount of help the residents, who range from 17 to their 70s, need varies widely.
“Some of them really need a lot of intervention,” she said.
Hernandez said one of the biggest challenges facing some of the residents is “how to present themselves to employers,” including phone etiquette and body language, as well as how to explain any criminal actions in their past.
Amy Solomon — senior advisor to the assistant attorney general in the Office of Justice Programs of the U.S. Department of Justice — said, as a panelist of the Sept. 20 discussion, that about 30 percent of individuals in the country have a criminal background.
Although she said she did not know exactly how many companies screen out everyone with a record, she said, “We know it’s out there.”
Antonia Fasanelli, executive director of the Homeless Person’s Representative Project, said at the same event that she has seen that some employers seem not to completely understand what a criminal record and the information it includes actually means, therefore impairing their ability to determine whether an individual’s criminal background should prevent them from being hired.
Joe Adler, director of the Montgomery County Office of Human Resources, told The Gazette that the office, which is responsible for the intake of job candidates for more than 30 county departments, determines on a “case by case basis” whether a person with a criminal background will continue in the application process.
Adler said the office considers how long ago a crime occurred and how the individual’s background matches with a particular job. If someone had a conviction for driving while intoxicated and had been found at fault in an accident involving an injury, they would not be hired for a driving position, he said, providing a hypothetical example. An individual who had been convicted of embezzlement would similarly not be hired for dealing with money.
Other cases, he said are determined by state law. For example, an individual who was convicted of a crime involving children would not be hired for a position dealing with children.
Adler said there is some additional work when it comes to investigating the history of a person with a criminal background, “but not to the point we consider terribly burdensome.”
John Keating, president of Metropolitan Industries, Inc. and a panelist at the Sept. 20 discussion held at the pre-release center, said that he has hired more than 100 residents from the center to work in his construction business.
He said he has had “success stories” and “just as many stories of people that weren’t so good.”
‘They see one, they see all’
The same panel discussion held at the pre-release center and hosted by the nonprofit Job Opportunities Task Force, invited potential and current Montgomery County employers, yet only a few attended. Other attendees included those who were working with people who were having a hard time getting a job.
Jason Perkins-Cohen, the task force’s executive director, said they did not expect many employers to attend in part because the event, hosted on a weekday, might not fit into their work schedules.
The task force works to help low-skill and low-income workers and job seekers, rather than specifically those with a criminal background.
“We reach out in smaller groups,” Perkins-Cohen said, including local chambers and business networks, where he said they are “typically very well received.”
Nadeem Sinnokrot, another former resident of the pre-release center and a panelist at the event, was hired in October of 2010 after a month-and-a-half job search and currently works as a customer service advisor in an automotive maintenance company.
Sinnokrot was arrested in 2009 for possession of marijuana and intent to distribute. He spent about six months in jail and about eight months as a resident in the pre-release center.
Sinnokrot told The Gazette that he benefited from the center’s structured environment, which he said helped him adapt his behavior and mentality from what it had become during his jail sentence. He said he also benefited from his “ambition to be somebody.”
“I was hungry, I wanted to work,” said Sinnokrot, who said he was helped by his faith and the support of a friend and his mom.
Although he said some residents try hard to get a job, “half these people [at the center] don’t want to change,” he said.
Sinnokrot said he thinks, although it depends on the individual, employers should give people with a criminal background a chance.
“They see one, they see all,” he said.