Category Archives: employment assistance ex-offenders

Out and Employed is BACK!

Yes, it’s been awhile.   More than a year and a half, actually.  When I took a break from writing this blog, it wasn’t because I’d lost interest in the issues faced by folks who have criminal records. Rather, it was that I needed to pursue some writing that actually earned me money.

So I did.  And I continue to.

But a funny thing happened along the way.  Many of you didn’t stop reading.  In fact, daily page views for Out and Employed steadily rose.  Some of you continued to share your struggles with me privately or even send me questions.  I felt bad about not always being able to respond.  I figured maybe other blogs or websites would pick up the slack, and they have.  There’s a lot more out there than when I started this blog in early 2009.

And yet…it still seems that there can never be enough.  So as of today, I will be relaunching this blog and getting back up to date on the state of the reentry challenge — what’s changed, what’s stayed the same and what the new issues are.  I’ve already updated my links to add new resources and fix the broken ones (thank you to the careful readers who pointed those out).  Please let me know if there are any other useful sites that I should have on my blogroll.

My initial impressions: Obviously, the job market hasn’t gotten any easier.  But the information out there to help ex-offenders and others with criminal records has definitely improved.  I remain in awe of The National Reentry Resource Center, which continues to offer the best one-stop shopping for anyone looking for assistance making the transition from incarceration back to working life.  In fact, a new addition on their site gets my…

Most useful help line:  Did you know that in many parts of the country you can dial 211 if you need help finding food, housing, health care, counseling or other community services?   I didn’t.  To see if this service is available in your area, go here and enter your zip code.

Most encouraging statistics:  Recidivism — that’s folks returning to prison — is significantly down in a number of states.  A report issued by the Council of State Governments in September found Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Texas and Vermont each were able to reduce their recidivism rates through a variety of measures. These included programs targeting those at highest risk for reoffending, improved training for parole officers, more community-based housing and increased use of home monitoring.  For each state, the study compared three-year post release recidivism rates for individuals released in 2005 with those released in 2007.  Michigan showed the biggest improvement with an 18% drop in its rate, while Kansas was second with at 15% reduction.  For more details you can read the report.

Most pressing questions:   Here’s where you can help me.  What are your questions?  What challenges are you facing right now?  What would you like to see me write about?  Please let me know and I’ll try to cover it in a future post.

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Take a journey of hope

Today I’m over at Journey of Hope,  talking with host Rodney Mathers about, among other subjects:

  • Answering tough interview questions
  • How to handle gaps in your resume
  • Whether recent discrimination lawsuits and action by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will make it easier for people with criminal records to get a job.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the site, Journey of Hope is a terrific weekly podcast that deals with issues affecting ex-offenders.  Mathers started the program after he was released from prison and learned just how difficult it was to start over. His goal was to help others in this situation by offering somewhere they could  turn for help and encouragement.  On previous shows he’s dealt with everything  from job scams that target ex-felons to finding financing for further education or to start a business to dealing with the stresses of reintegration.

It’s a great resource, so check it out.  You can hear my interview here.

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Just out: a nationwide guide to reentry programs

If you’re looking for help starting over, you might want to check-out this great new guide reentry programs.

The searchable database was the brainchild of  the Council of State Goverments Justice Center with support from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA.

The goal of new online Reentry Programs Database is to provide a comprehensive catalog of  initiatives to help former adult and juvenile offenders and those with criminal records.  It’s a great idea, and the CGS is enoucraging agencies to update their data so that users will be able to locate the most current information on reentry.

When I took a look at the guide this past week, it was simple enough to search by entering your city and state and the type of assistance you were seeking.  The idea is very similar to a resource offered by the National Hire Network, which also offers a state-by state listing of reentry and other helpful resources.

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Straight Talk: Blogger James E. Walker Jr. on the challenges of starting over

James E. Walker Jr.

I first got to know James Walker a couple of months ago, when he responded to a post I’d written on shame.  His response was so heartfelt, that I immediately clicked on the link to his blog.  There I found some very thoughtful commentary on reentry from a man who ought to know.  In 1977, Walker went to prison for what he describes as the worst crime imaginable.  In the midst of a robbery attempt, he killed a man.  Steeped in regret, Walker would spend the next 30 years of his life behind bars.  Though he knew he could never atone for what he’d done, when he was released three years ago at the age of 51, Walker felt he had little in common with the young man who’d made such an irreversible mistake. He’d worked to better himself and was ready to start fresh. And yet, his reentry has been far from easy.  As he confessed in a post earlier this year:

“Throughout my incarceration, I never could quite comprehend why so many guys returned to prison. Today, I know all too well why most of those who return to prison do so: the lack of real career opportunities. All the doors to financial stability and success–traditional or otherwise–seem not only closed but also locked. Dead bolted. Barricaded. Welded shut.”

In this month’s Straight Talk, Walker agreed to share his journey and how his expectations have differed from the reality of getting out:

Expectations vs. Reality

By James E. Walker Jr.

Two months shy of my 21st birthday and six months out of work, I got the foolish notion to become a stick-up man.  A neophyte to criminal behavior, woefully naïve and reckless, I botched the wrong-headed attempt at armed robbery, and a man died.

During the 30 years I spent in prison, I lived for the time when I would leave prison.  I believe that all prisoners spend their time in prison looking forward to the resumption of their life outside.  Some of us, though, for whatever reasons, seem to take our time more seriously.  I did.  I resolved early in my sentence that I would not allow my time to do me.

Time does the prisoner—instead of the prisoner doing time—when the prisoner takes no responsibility for the way he spends his days.  It happens when he serves his sentence as if doing time doesn’t bother him at all, as if it amounts to a mere inconvenience.  For sure, this occurs most often with folks serving relatively brief prison terms, but it also occurs with some of those doing longer sentences.

Many people around me wondered why I spent my time in school, in the library, or off by myself reading a book.  Why was I planning for a future that seemed to recede further and further and further from me?  The reason I never took my focus off my future was simple. I didn’t want to be consumed by my past behavior, and the netherworld of prison that resulted from that misbehavior.  Distraction from the goal of freedom, that grand ideal, would amount to a living death for which I had no desire.

And so I completed my bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, with a concentration in English. Knowing that my criminal background would restrict my career options, I began to think about innovative and creative ways I might succeed in navigating the expected obstacles to success.  I knew it would be difficult, but I expected that completing an undergraduate degree would impress prospective employers to take a chance on hiring me.  All the hard work I’d done to distinguish myself from the average prisoner, I thought, would likewise distinguish me from the average ex-con, once I left prison.  Why shouldn’t it?  Doesn’t our society continuously trumpet the value of higher education as the vehicle out of powerlessness, poverty, and disadvantage?

What I found upon getting released from prison, however, was something entirely different.  Indeed, my educational attainment and personal development, almost incredibly, intensified the rejection I experienced.  I quickly learned that our society has simply blocked many paths to career success for persons convicted of criminal offenses.  Even when no law prohibits career access, social norms often do.  In countless interviews, the repeated message seemed to be: your education, skill set, and eminently positive representation mean nothing.  You’ve got a felonious past—a violent one, at that.  Ain’t nothing happenin’!

In the past three years, I’ve been rejected and passed-over for everything from a part-time, minimum-wage pizza delivery job to a potentially six-figure insurance sales position.  The folks at the pizzeria wouldn’t even talk to me.  The recruiter at the insurance agency did engage the conversation, but I didn’t get the job.  An auto dealer refused to consider me because, he said, his insurance carrier just wouldn’t allow him to hire me.  A woman at another insurance operation told me I couldn’t get a license to sell insurance because of my criminal conviction.  When I demonstrated that, legally speaking, I could, she just ended the conversation.  The folks at a well-known parcel delivery service appeared quite impressed with my work history—until, that is, I explained that all of that job experience occurred in prison.  When a local reentry agency hired me as a case manager, I had to leave the job I had sought for two years after only two weeks, because the folks at a nearby prison won’t allow me entrance as a case manager—though they continue to allow me entrance as a volunteer.

The list goes on and on…

Yes, it’s been discouraging. I’ve spent time working with other ex-offenders, and often been able to help them in ways I haven’t been able to help myself.  I’ve watched as even my family has lost patience. The implication is that I, in some way, must not be doing the right things in order to find an employer willing to hire me.  Today, I no longer do walk-ins and cold calls.  I’ve stopped traveling significant distances to do applications.  I’ve stopped blasting my resume.  I’ve stopped applying for every possible opening.

I still selectively submit applications online.  I also continue to make disclosure of my background up front, usually via cover letter.  I couch that disclosure in the most constructive language possible.  I acknowledge responsibility for my misbehavior.  I do so clearly and genuinely.  I don’t wallow or grovel.  I acknowledge the past, then speak to my personal maturity and development, and look forward to the future with both confidence and humility.

Recently, I obtained a part-time position as a digital media marketing executive at a small information technology and services firm.  The position doesn’t pay very much, but I have an opportunity to demonstrate my value to the organization.  My co-workers have embraced me for the affability, intelligence, positive mindedness, and commitment to excellence they see in me.  They know I have a criminal past but have no real interest in the details of that past.  They genuinely like me, the person.  I don’t think I could have found a more supportive workplace environment.  My gratitude extends beyond all measure.

At the same time, I feel the need to keep bringing attention to the challenges faced by others like me.  Just as I rejected the correctional mindset during my imprisonment, I reject the predominant social mindset out here in the “free” society.  Something has to change. The chasm between our national pride as a land of opportunity, and our national perverseness in systemically rejecting and excluding persons who have made serious mistakes in the past—even after they’ve paid the legal price for those mistakes—spans deep and wide.

So does my determination to bridge it.

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Ex-offenders: reducing the “fear factor”

I came upon great article about a community program in Enid, Oklahoma that helps ex-offenders get back on their feet.  Like most reentry organizations, this one aims to assist newly released individuals in getting their documents in order and obtaining housing and employment.

What’s unique about the Enid Community Re-entry Initiative Committee is the way they’re trying to achieve this.  Their goal is to have a mentor for every returning felon.  By providing one-on-one support, notes, EEOC supervising case manager Mitzi Maddox, these mentors could play a direct role in  helping reduce recidivism.  This would also go a way towards reducing the stigma of incarceration.

“Instead of being scared (of the inmates), we want the community to get the idea of helping them,” Maddox said.

 

Personally, I love this idea of matching people one to one.    Obviously, it wouldn’t work in every case — people have to want to change. But given that we have 9 million ex-offenders being released from jail annually and 700,000 offenders coming out of state and federal prisons, imagine the impact even a little success would have.

At OAR Fairfax, the non-profit where I volunteer, caseworkers have found that “without employment and supportive relationships, an ex-offender’s likelihood of success is greatly limited. ”  I’ve met some of these offenders in my classes; people whose relationships are unhealthy or abusive, people who have lost contact with their family, or been ostracized by them, people who never have visitors and are terrified of their release because they have nowhere to go and no one to support them.  Many times, these individuals seek out mentor relationships while they’re still serving their sentences.    Until recently, the OAR mentor program only extended through the course of the person’s stay in the adult detention center, but now OAR is extending the mentoring relationship so that it continues for the first year after release.

I think that can only help.  In my classes I encourage students to seek out mentors, wherever possible.   I’ve also had the privilege of being a mentor, and can tell anyone considering volunteering in this way that it is extremely rewarding.   I still keep in touch with my mentee on an informal basis and value our relationship.

In previous posts, former offenders have commented on the loneliness offenders feel upon release and the sense of being different — an attitude that can if taken to an extreme lead to isolation, depression and too often, re-offending.    Ernest McNear, a pastor in Philadelphia, summed up the value of a mentor best when talking to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“If you are going to have successful reentry you have to have someone welcoming you into the community, not just a program.”

How about you?   Has anyone had anyone had a mentoring experience they’d like to share?  Was it helpful?  If so why?  If it didn’t work, why not?

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Don’t sell yourself short: any experience counts!

After posting for 31 straight days as part of WordCount Blogathon 2010, I know I’ve fallen off a bit this week.  Please  forgive me.  I’ve been catching up on everything I’ve neglected, and working on some more involved future stories. I’m also in the process of putting together the final resumes for the students in my latest class, which is invariably a multi-step process.

Yesterday, I gave back their rough drafts  with my questions.  As always, I was amazed at the work experience and achievements people had left off their resumes.

Some examples from this and previous classes:

  • Developing  a fundraising campaign that brought in $5,000 over three days for a non-profit.
  • Helping with the relocation of an automotive business.
  • Managing the books for a clothing business.
  • Being selected employee of the month.
  • Winning the volunteer of the year award.

In four of these cases, the reason was because the work was done on a voluntary/unpaid basis.   To which I say, so what?  Experience is experience and if I were an employer I’d be very interested in someone who was a natural fundraiser or an organization’s best worker of the year, unpaid or not.

So when you’re making a list of what you have to offer an employer, don’t rule out volunteer work, or projects you’ve undertaken on your own. And don’t forget awards or recognition you’ve received, even they don’t seem that important.  Theses are the achievements that often make you unique, and hence, just the person the employer wants to hire.

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Job interviews and ex-offenders: maybe it’s not the crime that cost you the job

In my last two class sessions, we’ve been talking about answering job interview questions.  Yes, that includes the $64,000 biggie:  Have you ever been convicted of a crime?

And yet, for all the emphasis put on being able to look an employer in the eye and honestly discuss your record or those huge gaps in your work history —  it’s often the simple and seemingly benign questions that can trip up an ex-offender. 

This came to light last week after a lively class  discussion about what to say when an employer opens an interview by saying:  “Tell me about yourself.” 

Most of my students felt this was an easy question. 

It’s not. In fact, if you don’t handle this one carefully you can end up stumbling right out of the starting gate.   Despite seeming open-ended, an employer isn’t asking for your life history here. Nor does he want  a long-winded dissertation on why this job  is your dream come true.  As one inmate wisely noted, the employer doesn’t just want to know what you’ve done in the past, but who you are and what you can do for them.   In Michelle Rafter’s  blog for SecondAct.com, Georgia Tech University professor Nathan Bennett  offers good advice when he says,  focus not on what you enjoy, but on what you bring to an organization that is uinque and hard for others to copy.

So how do you  do this?   The key is tailoring your skills and abilities to the needs of the employer, but in a way that doesn’t come off sounding like a canned sales pitch.  Sally Chopping, a Pittsburgh-based interview and public speaking coach, suggests breaking the question down into 3 parts

  1. Identify the 3 most important qualities for the job.
  2. Mention the most relevant last job you had and highlight one of your achievements.
  3. Say why you’d like to work for the particular company. 

If you put these together as she does, you end up with a response that encapsulates your unique strengths and abilities in a way that shows how they will benefit the company. 

This video, courtesy of CollegeGrad.com, (which is equally applicable to jobs that don’t require college degrees, by the way) also spells out a good approach to the “Tell me about yourself”  query:

How about you?   What have you said when an employer opens with this question?  What’s worked and what hasn’t?

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Are ex-offenders the new “untouchables”?

“I had been wrong about our criminal justice system. It’s not just another institution in our society infected by racial bias, but a different beast entirely. It functions today as a caste system. It functions to lock poor people of color in a permanent second class status for life, much like Jim Crow once did.”

Wow.

I heard this driving home from my class at the Fairfax Adult Detention Center today, and had to resist the urge to yell “yes,” to the radio.  The speaker was Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar, attorney and former Supreme Court clerk.  She was being interviewed on NPR’s Tell Me More program about her new book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

What jumped out at me was her reference to caste.  We here in America like to think of ourselves as living in the land of equal opportunity, I know.  But this particular term  is one that’s come up a lot in my discussions about the offenders and the criminal justice system, lately.  An offender turned reentry advocate I talked to a whle back put it even more bluntly:

“I think we as humans need an untouchable class.  Before it was race that held people down, now it’s that your branded and ostracized because you’re an ex-offender.”

Alexander argues that blacks are still disproportionately represented in this new lower caste, hence the link  to notorious Jim Crow laws.  She backs up her assertions with plenty of statistics, including:

  • The War on Drugs, which caused the prison explosion has been primarily waged in poor neighborhoods of color. Yes, drugs are there, she says, but they’re also in white suburban neighborhoods, as well.  But despite this, in some states 80 to 90 percent of drug offenders sent to prison are African Americans.
  • If we were to go back to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, we would have to release four out of five people who are in prison today.

Author Michelle Alexander

I would agree with Alexander to a point.  Certainly more African Americans are affected by the criminal justice system.  But the caste system she’s referring to also impacts a substantial number of low income, under-educated whites.  The groups I teach in Northern Virginia have never had an African American majority.  But it’s a good bet that the most of these students, whatever their race, are usually from a lower rung on the class ladder, which guarantees them poorer legal representation and less access to some of the “breaks” often afforded higher class lawbreakers.

That said, I think Alexander and the people I’ve spoken to are right when they say that felons are the new untouchables.  As Alexander points out, offenders are:

“…trapped in a permanent second class status in which you may be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. All the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind…..are suddenly legal again once you’ve been branded a felon.”

Note:  Alexander and others who advocate for criminal justice reform aren’t saying that those who break the law don’t deserve to be punished.  But it’s a question of scale.  Right now having a criminal record punishes all offenders in perpetuity, often regardless of the circumstances of the individual crime.   Employers who routinely screen out anyone with a record, for example, effectively treat a felony as a scarlet letter.

Alexander thinks nothing short of a social movement will change this situation.  In ex-offender forums I often hear people talking about getting groups together and going to Washington, D.C., but so far there’s been no significant organized action.

How about you?  Do you think offenders are the new lower caste?  If so, what do you think it will take to change this?

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Who hires violent offenders? You’d be surprised.

Their crimes aren’t easy to stomach.

VASAVOR job developer Mouly Aloumouati

Murder. Rape. Armed Robbery. Aggravated Assault.  But when they come to Mouly Aloumouati, they’ve done their time and have one thing in common.

They want a job and they want to start over.

Aloumouati does his best to accommodate.  A business developer at SkillSource Center, (a One Stop Career Center operator in Virginia), he also manages  the VASAVOR (Virginia’s Serious and Violent Offender Reentry) program in conjunction with re-entry organization OAR.  Over the past seven years, he estimates he’s dealt with some 400 violent offenders and found jobs for more than 75 percent of them.

“I’ve got a recidivism rate of 5 percent,”  he says, which isn’t bad, when you consider that nationally nearly two thirds of offenders return to prison or jail within two years.

Affable and approachable, Aloumouati’s secret is a mixture of practicality, doggedness and a willingness to do what it takes to help get his people placed.  When he started, he  had no experience with offenders, but over time he’s developed an acute understanding of the challenges they face and the way to overcome these.

I was fortunate to catch up with Aloumouati two weeks ago when I stopped by the local Career One Stop Center in Falls Church, VA.  Here’s some of what he had to say about how he works and what he’s learned:

On the biggest challenge the violent offender faces:

Some would call it the “fear” factor.   “I would say the hardest thing is getting over the stigma.  But I try to show the people I work with that the stigma is not the end of the world.  You can get past it, if you’re willing to work hard and be persistent.”  The important thing, he adds, is how you come across and whether you are employable.  This means do you have your IDs, do you know how to conduct yourself in a workplace, have you taken responsibility for your actions or are you in denial…otherwise I’m wasting my time because you’re not ready.”  The first step he takes with people who come to him is to do an employment assessment to see where they are.

On what kind of jobs serious offenders can get:

Aloumouati has placed offenders in the labor and construction industries, administrative and clerical jobs, the trades, transportation and food service, among other areas.  Many of these positions are entry-level, but he’s also helped individuals find more advanced positions in the medical and other professional fields.

On how the ex-offender should present himself:

“I tell people I work with you spend 10 seconds explaining your record in an interview, then you spend 10 minutes telling the employer what you can do for him.

On his job hunt secrets:

Aloumouati keeps a file on every employer who’s ever hired one of his clients.  Any reentry organization can develop a similar list by going to case files for the past three to four years and looking at where the offenders they worked with got jobs, he says.  Everywhere he goes, he brings business cards and makes sure he gets them from any employer he meets.  He scans the want-ads and Craig’s List regularly and follows up immediately.  “Youve got to get to the job before the non-criminals do to make your case,” he says.  In fact, he’s been known to drive offenders to an interview to take advantage of a hot lead right away.   Even if the job doesn’t work out — he keeps track of the employer so he can check back periodically and find out about new openings before they’re advertised.

On getting professional jobs:

Aloumouati has worked with former doctors, lawyers, police, judges, military, engineers and plenty of others with impressive credentials.  Sometimes these individuals will no longer be able to work in their field because of their crimes or licensing requirements. Nonetheless he has still been able to help many find very good jobs.  “I have five clients right now, who are making more than $85,000,” he says.

On his advice to an offender who can no longer work in his/her field:

You need to be very creative and change direction. “I tell the people I work with they have to dig deep in their souls and brains to bring me other industries where they can work.”  A medical doctor may never be a doctor again with a felony, but he can work with or for a doctor.  People may lose security clearances, but not the knowledge and experience they had previously.   I have a number of engineers and people in IT that I’ve been able to place in good jobs in the industry.  They may not be doing exactly what they were doing before, but they’re still using their skills.

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Incentives to hire ex-offenders: more questions on bonding

Got a bit of a scare on Wednesday when I went to check out www.bonds4jobs.com — that’ s the website for the federal bonding program — and found it no longer existed.

But FEAR NOT!   As you can see, it turned out to a temporary glitch, with the site merely down for maintenance.  The bonding program, which facilitates the hiring of ex-offenders and other at-risk employees by providing  insurance to protect employers in the event of theft or dishonesty,  is alive and well and actually quite busy now.

That’s according to Ron Rubbin, the director of the federal program, who called me back yesterday to explain.  “I was amazed at the number of people who called because they couldn’t find site,”  Rubbin said.  “It shows how popular the program is.”

While I had Rubbin on the phone — a bit of serendipity to be sure — he was kind enough to help me answer a few questions that have recently come up in my classes about the bond program:

How does the bonding program work?

Basically, employers who wish to employ at risk or hard to place employees can obtain fidelity bonds to insure their businesses for up to 6 months in the event that employee commits an act of dishonesty.   The typical bond amount is $5,000 and the bonds are renewable.  The state buys the bonds at a discount (it costs approximately $98 to insure one individual for $5,000).  If you are seeking bonding services or a job you should call  1-877-US2-JOBS  (1-877-872-5627).   They will refer you to your state’s bonding coordinator or the nearest career one stop employment center for assistance.  Since 1966, when the initiative was started, more than 40,000 people have been insured through the federal bonding program.

Will the program help me get a job?

Yes and no.  Most private insurers will not bond ex-offenders.  The fact that an employer can get protection against theft or loss through this program if they take a chance on an you,  may encourage them to take that risk.  IF you have all of the right experience and skills, and IF you are the person they want to hire, the bonding program is a great incentive.   But if you’re not a fit for the job, it’s unlikely to help.

I applied for a job in housekeeping at a large hotel chain recently.  They said they couldn’t hire me because I was an ex-offender and I needed to be bonded?   Can they do that?

In the future if an interviewer uses this excuse you may want to mention the bonding program.  Given that you say this was a big chain, the employer likely knew about federal bonding, but chose not to participate.  Some companies don’t want to hire ex-offenders even with bonding and that’s their prerogative.   Most of the people bonded through the program, Rubbin says, won’t be having access to large amounts of cash and valuable merchandise. That might have been the issue with a hotel.

I work in a high-paying industry.  Unfortunately, a $5,000 bond won’t be enough to insure me, since companies usually base this amount on a portion of your salary.  So the federal bonding program can’t help me, can it?

Actually, you still may be able to get help.  Although the typical employee is  bonded  for $5,000, the amount can go as high as $25,000.   About 15 percent of the ex-offenders in the program are insured for more than $5,000.  As a practical matter it comes down the state agency or bonding coordinator’s discretion.   If they agree to insure you, you could be covered for a higher amount.   It will depend on your case and the competing needs in your state or area.  Obviously, more people can be insured if they limit the bonds to $5,000, but most states make evaluations on a case by case basis.

Still have questions about bonding?   You can find tons more information at the bonds4jobs site.  And if you’ve had an experience being bonded in this program we’d love to hear about it.

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