• Traci Shaw

Moving Forward: Finding Job Opportunities with a Criminal Record

Mason has a public health degree and a wide variety of volunteer experience. When you first meet him, he has a reserved demeanor and a positive outlook. He also happens to have a criminal record. “I had some convictions and ran into some problems, but I’ve been sober for a while now. I got my degree and worked at a couple different places, but it was always an issue getting hired,” says Mason.

Mason works with the Relay Building Maintenance team to update one of the Relay affordable housing offices.

He has learned how to navigate the topic if it comes up in conversation. “You don’t want to make it a huge deal and feel like you have to explain everything,” he recommends. “You just take responsibility and move on.” But having that conversation during the interview process was something Mason used to stress about when considering applying for a new job. “It’s disheartening. You catch yourself assuming it’s not going to work out anyway,” says Mason.

In 2015, Oregon adopted Ban The Box, which requires employers to remove questions about criminal history from job applications. This helps reduce an initial barrier to employment for people with past convictions.

Working with employee referral partners, Relay Resources has learned that there’s often overlap with barriers to employment. Melanie Damm, Employment Services Manager at Relay, says helping people through a variety of barriers to employment speaks to the heart of the mission at Relay. “Those are the folks that are really having the hardest time because it's not just one barrier,” says Melanie. “It's two or three or four different barriers that are in their lives. That's why Relay's here. That's who we want to serve.”

When asked about interviewing and working at Relay, Mason says it’s been a whole different experience than what he had at other places. “Relay isn’t going to count you out because you have problems in your past. I work with a packaging machine and there’s possibilities to move into other positions within Relay, too. It’s opened up doors for me,” says Mason. In fact, not too long after his initial interview for this story, Mason applied to transfer to a new position within Relay and began work as a Maintenance Apprentice with the Building Maintenance team.

Mason cuts a piece of wood for a Building Maintenance project at a Relay Resources Affordable Housing apartment complex.

Mason became a self-advocate, proactively telling his manager that he was looking to move up within the organization. And the Human Resources team kept an eye out for opportunities that might be a good fit. “Taking that risk of being vulnerable and saying you want to grow, especially to your manager and to your HR team, is a huge wonderful positive step that he took,” says Melanie. “Mason’s learning everything he can. He's gaining skills and that'll stick with him beyond Relay and throughout his career.

Working at Relay also opened doors for Mason in another way, too. “The housing is really beneficial for me,” says Mason. As a Relay employee, Mason qualifies for preferred status at Relay affordable housing units. This preference moved him to the top of the apartment waitlist. “Housing is a barrier in my overall life, security, and safety. Getting housing is hard with a record. It has made a huge impact in regard to livability. I love it. It’s a really great space with a good cost. I can work here and have my own little studio apartment.”

Mason also credits the Insight Alliance program he participated in before his release for his own outlook on life. “It’s had a major impact on me. Life is all an experience from inside ourselves, underlying who we are.” Insight Alliance works in prisons and the community. They teach how feelings, experience, and state of mind work; helping participants understand how they can thrive in any circumstance.

Melanie Damm also sees the opportunity to help employees thrive — at Relay. “Mason worked so hard and had a life before his criminal history. He has a life after his criminal history. Just because someone makes a mistake you can't just throw away all their experience and their skills and their great attitude. He's a great example of someone who is facing a barrier but is a huge asset to our workforce.”

Sporting a summer tan from a recent outdoor painting project in Building Maintenance, Mason sits and reflects thoughtfully on his time at Relay. “Working here has allowed me to realize that it is possible to do these things and not be stuck in a terrible job for the rest of my life. The Relay team is really willing to work with people and don’t hold it against you. They want to know: ‘What are you doing in your life now? How are you doing in your job today?’ That’s been a huge stress reducer. Take a look at today and move forward.”

What advice would Mason give to someone with a similar background? “Don’t let your thoughts defeat you before you start. There’s more opportunity than what can be apparent.”

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