Fresh out of jail, Rita Parker just landed her highest-paying job ever. She started work on Dec. 9 at a Tulsa factory of a heating and air conditioning manufacturer, earning $14 an hour. The most she’d ever made before was $8.50, managing a convenience store. “My main worry getting out was that I wouldn’t get a good job,” says the 28-year-old, who served about nine months for drug possession. “A job will definitely help me stay sober. The shifts are so long, so I won’t have time to twiddle my thumbs.”
Parker was one of 462 offenders who walked out of Oklahoma prisons last month into what for many is the hottest U.S. labor market of a lifetime. Nov. 4 marked the largest single-day commutation in U.S. history, part of a wave of reforms to soften the state’s tough-on-crime laws. Parker, for one, was amazed that hiring demand was so robust that her new employer would overlook not just her prison record but also her lack of relevant qualifications. “I never worked for someone like them, and it’s a little surprising they’d be interested,” she says.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t compile data on job seekers with criminal records, but sources interviewed for this story say a scarcity of workers has forced employers to be less picky, creating opportunities for traditionally disadvantaged groups such as ex-convicts. U.S. payrolls jumped 266,000 in November, the most since January, pushing the national unemployment rate to a half-century low of 3.5%. Oklahoma’s jobless rate is even lower, at 3.3%. Federal and state laws easing sentencing requirements for nonviolent crimes have reduced prison terms for some offenders, which has generally lessened the stigma.
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