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Newark Group Urges Change In Public Employment Job Applications

Billie Bibow talks at the Newark Think Tank of Poverty
Tom Borgerding
Billie Bibow of Newark tells a Denison University audience of her efforts to find work after being released from prison. The Newark Think Tank on Poverty advocates changes in state law to help non-violent, ex-felons

As Ohio considers early release for some inmates convicted of non-violent felonies, a pair of state lawmakers has introduced a bill to improve odds of them getting work. In Newark, a non-profit is actively backing the proposed legislation as a means to combat poverty and help ex-felons from returning to prison.

28 year old Billie Bibow of Newark describes herself as a ‘returning citizen’ eight years after being released from prison.

“I first acquired my first felony when I was 16 and a few more after I turned 18 and it’s quite a struggle to find any employer that’s willing to take a chance on me,” says Bibow.

As an ex-felon, few employers will consider Bibow for a fulltime, permanent job. She’s required to check ‘yes’ on a job application when asked whether she’s ever been convicted of a felony. As a result, Bibow has to take jobs that are available.

“…including standing alongside busy streets holding up business signs, spinning them around for five dollars an hour just to put a meal on my table.” says Bibow.

Bibow tells her story as part of a campaign by the Newark Think Tank. The anti-poverty group advocates what it calls the Ohio Fair Hiring Act. It’s a legislative proposal that applies only to public employers, cities, counties and state government. If passed, the bill would hide an applicant’s criminal history until after a job applicant gets an interview. Newark Think Tank spokeswoman Wendy Tarr.

“This would be for anybody that has a criminal history that’s trying to get work in the public sector and it would provide for them to present themselves to an employer in a way that would not disclose their criminal history on the front end,” says Tarr.

Instead, Tarr says background checks on job applicants would be delayed until after a job interview.

“And if they find that they have something on their criminal history that now makes them worried, they don’t want to offer the job they would have to actually disclose that in writing as to what it is about the nature of the crime, what it is about the nature of their criminal history rather, does it relate to the actual duties of the job, and if it does then they would have the right to not offer somebody the job.”

Ohio’s proposal to hide a job applicant’s criminal history until after a job interview parallels a national effort to lessen the stigma of a criminal record, especially for low-level felonies. Stephen JohnsonGrove at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center in Cincinnati says non-violent ex-felons are often passed over despite being otherwise qualified for a job.

“When we say felony record as though it’s one thing, as though they’re all the same, we are excluding a vast number of highly qualified potential employees,” says JohnsonGrove.

In Newark and Licking County, about a quarter of those released from prison will commit new crimes and go back to prison. Billie Bibow wants to avoid any return to prison. For the past eight years, she’s strung together odd jobs ranging from sewing to tree work to mechanics. She calls herself a ‘Jackie’ of all trades.

“During the summer I’ll have a list of five different employers that I will go to, a different one every single day so that way I can provide food on the table that night,” says Bibow.

Bibow says she currently awaits an answer to a job application for a full-time mechanic. The legislation to hide criminal records from public employment job applications is in committee in the state legislature.