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In tight job market, a program puts ex-convicts to work — and keeps them there

Hiring former convicts isn't just good for society — it's also good for business. Take it from Leo and Oliver Kremer, co-owners of restaurant chain Dos Toros Taqueria. They say some of their best — and most loyal — employees also happen to have criminal records.

Six of the fast-casual restaurant's current staff members were hired through a program called Getting Out and Staying Out (GOSO), which helps young men who have been through the criminal justice system avoid getting in trouble again by teaching them job readiness and other skills.

"It's a total win-win. We feel like we're having a positive impact on the community, but it makes sense for completely selfish reasons, too, in terms of being exposed to great talent, especially in a tight labor market," Leo Kremer told CBS MoneyWatch. 

Widening applicant pool

A low unemployment rate — it fell to 3.8 percent in February from 4 percent in January — makes it difficult for businesses to attract and retain top talent because people can be choosier about where they work. "We used to put out ads for help wanted and get 20 people. Now you do that and get five people applying, maybe," Leo Kremer said. "Whenever you're able to meet more people and see more candidates, it's going to result in better hiring."

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Michael Van Leuvan, who manages Dos Toros' Union Square location in Manhattan, is a product of the restaurant's "better hiring" practices. The 31-year-old New York native was raised in public housing, where he says he emulated his peers and began selling drugs — the only way he knew how to make money — when he was 12 years old.

"Everyone else was doing it, and I didn't know anything about getting a job. It was money, and I was able to take care of myself," Van Leuvan told CBS MoneyWatch.

When he was 15, he was arrested for robbery and was released to a diversion program, but Van Leuvan was nabbed again for dealing drugs. He was jailed for four years, and when he returned home at age 19, no one would hire him, he said. So he resorted to crime, again.

"I was trying to get a job at Staples and McDonald's, but they turned me down because I didn't have any work experience," Van Leuvan said. "I didn't know how to do a resumé either."

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Michael Van Leuvan, a participant in the Getting Out Staying Out program, is now a valued member of the Dos Toros restaurant team.

Now, thanks to GOSO, Dos Toros — and his own work ethic — Van Leuvan has been gainfully employed for more than three years. "I just love to work," he said. "I have kids and a family to take care of, so that's all I do."

Employment key to success

GOSO, its participants and employer partners are perhaps more forward-looking than others might be. Leo Kremer said he trusts GOSO to vet applicants, so he doesn't ask about their criminal records. Because the organization works with younger men, they tend not to have committed first-degree felonies like rape or murder — which carry longer sentences. 

Still, the program doesn't discriminate based on an applicant's charges or background. "We'll take anyone interested in changing their life," said GOSO Associate Executive Director Geoffrey Golia. Giving participants employment opportunities is one of the keys to helping them avoid re-involvement in the criminal justice system.

"Most people who go to jail and prison are coming home, and if they're coming home, they need to come home to gainful employment. We don't want to create a class of unemployed formerly incarcerated people. It doesn't make sense socially or economically," Golia said. 

Incentives for businesses

GOSO subsidizes participants' first 240 hours of work — making it a low-risk proposition for potential employers. Restaurants, food service, and cleaning and custodial companies are among the types of businesses that have benefited from hiring workers from GOSO. 

"Companies are getting free labor, and participants are coming trained and screened, with a staff of social workers who are supporting those participants," Golia said. Businesses that hire formerly incarcerated employees also become eligible for a federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit designed as a government incentive for workplace diversity.  

"On the front end there's an economic boon, and on the back end there's a tax credit," Golia said. "I think it makes a lot of sense for small- and medium-size businesses with tighter bottom lines that don't have big margins." 

An effective program

The low recidivism rate among GOSO participants illustrates the program's efficacy. Eighty-five percent of GOSO participants stay out of prison or jail, and roughly 75 percent of those who engage in internship-to-employment opportunities are hired by the companies where they're placed, according to the organization. Just 15 percent of the program's participants were re-arrested within three years of their release, versus the national average of 68 percent.

Golia attributes the program's high success rate to what he calls the "three E's."

"They stand for education, employment and emotional well-being," Golia said. GOSO's deep support network includes a staff of social workers who "can have challenging conversations around these topics." They also have the tools to address mental health and other issues that might be barriers to making strides in employment and education.

In addition, GOSO provides its members with prepaid MetroCards so they can easily travel to and from work on New York subways and buses. "People need to get from point a to point b, so we are there for them. Participants say, 'Hey, my MetroCard expires tonight and I am not going to be able to get home,' and we get them a MetroCard. Otherwise, my guy will get arrested [for fare evasion]," Golia said.

The organization is supported by a wide network of donors, including private individuals, criminal justice and youth development-focused foundations, as well as the City of New York. In 2017, it raised more than $3 million in contributions and grants. 

Leo Kremer said in his experience, GOSO workers have stayed with Dos Toros for longer than the average employee thereby reducing staff turnover — which can be costly to a business.

"Turnover is part of the hospitality business, but if we can retain a team member for 3 years instead of 1.5, that's a big win for both the guest experience and our team culture," Kremer said.

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