Have you ever been convicted of a crime?
This question on a job application presents a Catch-22 for many people who have criminal records, even limited ones.
If you answer yes, there's a good chance your resume won't make it onto the short stack to be considered for a job interview.
If you answer no, figuring it's no one's business that you were sentenced to probation for a burglary or shoplifting conviction a decade or so ago, you risk being rejected for not being truthful if the employer checks your record.
And a growing number of employers are requiring criminal background checks as a condition for employment, human resources experts say.
Although employers cannot legally reject an applicant solely on the basis of an arrest record, having a record of a conviction can significantly dim an individual's employment prospects, especially with so many unemployed chasing few jobs these days.
"It's difficult, in many cases, to get a job without a criminal record, and even more so with a criminal record," said Scott L. Rehr, executive director of Berks Connection/Pretrial Services, a nonprofit agency that helps offenders transition to society.
Winston Weaver, 49, of Reading learned the cold reality of being a job seeker as a convicted offender after he left the county's Community Re-entry Center in Bern Township in October.
Weaver got a job with a parcel-delivery company as a seasonal employee and was hired as a permanent employee before his employment came to an abrupt end after four days on the job.
He said he was told his services were no longer needed because the company checked his criminal record and it showed four misdemeanor convictions. Misdemeanors are more serious than summary offenses and can result in incarceration.
Weaver said he was stunned because he thought the company had checked his record before hiring him and was all right with it. He said he did not lie about his record on his application.
"The problem that I have, or was having, is that on the application they ask you if you've ever been convicted of a felony," he said. "I was never convicted of a felony. I was charged with a felony, but never convicted. But I have more than three misdemeanors."
A company manager told him it was company policy that the combination of misdemeanors barred his employment.
"I was kind of upset," Weaver said. "I'll be honest with you, it brought a tear to my eye because I thought I was back on track, and then for them to tell me they can't use me, that set me back a little bit."
A family member who owns a business gave him a job replacing industrial dust-collection bags. He's thankful someone gave him a chance since his re-entry into society.
He said he realizes why employers would be reluctant to hire people who have been convicted of crimes.
"A lot of bad people mess it up for good people," Weaver said. "Everyone makes mistakes. I'm not making any excuses or anything. I did my time, I'm cooperating, going to probation (visiting his probation officer) and doing what I'm supposed to do. "
Most employers require criminal background checks so they don't knowingly hire someone who could be dangerous to other workers, said Bob Harrop, vice president of personnel at East Penn Manufacturing Co. Inc., a Lyons area battery maker.
"It's legal protection," he said. "If someone isn't doing it I'd have to question why they're not doing it."
Harrop said he uses a combination of online public records available free of charge and third-party services that require a fee.
Conducting a background check also allows the employer to test an applicant's honesty.
"From our standpoint, it can be a bit of a test of integrity and honest of the applicant," Harrop said. "If someone tells you, 'I've never been in trouble with the law and never been convicted of anything,' and I find out differently that might be a problem for the applicant."
East Penn, the county's second-largest employer, has no strict policy against hiring someone who has a criminal record, Harrop said.
When making hiring decisions involving someone with a criminal record, he considers the nature of the offense, the age of the person at the time and how long ago it occurred.
"We would look at every case individually," he said.
Michael Fischetti, director of employment at Carpenter Technology Corp., said background checks are part of the hiring process because they provide insight into the character of the candidate.
Carpenter retains an agency to do background checks that allows it to tailor the search based on the position it is trying to fill, he said.
For example, a background check for a candidate for a finance position would be tailored to uncover any fraud convictions or bankruptcies, he said.
Although Carpenter doesn't automatically rule out an employee who has a criminal record, a person who has been convicted of a violent crime, no matter what the position they are seeking, would not be a suitable to work for the company, he said.
"Carpenter recognizes people make mistakes and we always try to provide the benefit of the doubt and provide second chances," Fischetti added.
But when it comes to a criminal record, it can be hard to escape your past.
The state police criminal background check, widely used for employment purposes, can be done online in a matter of minutes with a credit card for a $10 fee and an applicant's name, age and address.
It reaches back to age 14 for felonies, and as far back as age 12 for conviction of violent offense such as rape, robbery, aggravated assault and homicide, said Sgt. Anthony Manetta, a state police spokesman.
Summary offense convictions, including most traffic offense and minor offenses such as littering, disorderly conduct, public drunkenness and underage drinking, are not included in the report.
Convictions of misdemeanor offenses, such as drunken driving, theft (depending on the value of what is stolen) and simple assault are included beginning at age 18.
State police provide the specific convictions, but it is up to employers to set their own standards for employment.
"All we can do is report what is required by law," Manetta said. "We don't control what we can and cannot give."
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