California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) last week signed legislation which will clear the way for inmate firefighters to have their records expunged and to become eligible for a real firefighting job once they are released from prison. The bill, which applies to non-violent offenders, viewed in broader terms represents the kind of innovative thinking needed to help combat illegal aliens in the workforce.
The law is important because it allows California to partially fill the shortage of firefighters that occurred after 600 inmate firefighters were released earlier in the year in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Those trained former inmate firefighters can now apply to work in permanent positions. It might be a strategy that could work in other blue-collar industries, such as farming and construction, which have complained of similar shortages.
A 2019 New York Times article on the high number of foreign workers in construction argued that the “problem for builders is that the recovery in home building has outpaced the growth of the construction labor force.”
There is some truth to the claim that there are too few workers for available jobs. Part of the challenge is that some workers laid off in the last recession chose not to return to their jobs. Another obstacle for employers, according to a 2017 National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) survey, are key misperceptions about what construction trade work entails and pays, particularly among younger Americans.
The numbers do show an increasing number of immigrants and foreign nationals nabbing jobs in the construction trades, particularly since the housing market began to recover in 2009. In fact, the number of non-native workers in construction has increased even as immigration as slowed, according to data from NAHB.
However, the severe reliance is more prevalent in some states than others In California and Texas, immigrants comprise close to 40 percent of the construction workforce and it is approaching 37 percent in Florida, New Jersey and New York, according to NAHB. Conversely, in Western states like North Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska, the expansion occurred in the native-born labor force.
In addition to the millions left unemployed by the pandemic, there are an estimated 77 million Americans – one in three adults – who have a criminal record, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. No, that does not mean there are 77 million Americans ready to take a job currently held by an illegal or legal immigrant.
However, it shows that there are other avenues to pursue before immediately falling back on foreign labor as a solution. In fact, one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic – food services – was already experimenting with hiring ex-offenders.
Last year, the Department of Labor awarded the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation a $4.5 million grant to develop training programs so that formerly imprisoned young adults can access jobs upon their release. Not only would growing these kinds of programs help to alleviate hiring pressures in construction and the service industry, it also increases public safety, which cannot be said for turning a blind eye to illegal workers.
“Finding meaningful work is the single most important factor in keeping an ex-offender on the straight and narrow,” said David Safavian, the deputy director for the American Conservative Union’s Nolan Center for Justice, last year after the passage of the Fair Chance Act. The bi-partisan measure signed into law by President Trump prevents federal employers asking about prior convictions until a job offer is made.
There are similar bills in several states that would “ban the box,” a reference to the “have you ever been convicted” of a felony box that must be checked on an employment application. While no one is arguing that prisons will solve legitimate labor shortages nor eliminate the need for some foreign workers, it shows that with a little innovative thinking, there are solutions that are simply being overlooked.