There’s no denying that hiring ex-offenders can be challenging, but more people have to do it if we’re ever going to lower the recidivism rate. And maybe they would if they listened to Derreck Johnson, owner of San Francisco Bay Area’s Home of Chicken and Waffles restaurant chain. In fact, 25 percent of his workforce is ex-offenders, and he plans to continue hiring them as he adds more outlets.
It all started quite by accident in the early 1990s. Johnson had a car-detailing business and needed employees fast. A couple of men came in, and he hired them, only to find out later that they lived in a halfway house for ex-offenders. “They turned out to be wonderful employees, and the halfway house kept sending me guys,” he says. “Their commitment and desire to work was amazing, and the rapport I had with them was outstanding.”
The halfway house is no more, but Johnson continues to hire ex-offenders with the help of the City of Oakland’s Measure Y program. Measure Y, passed by the Oakland voters in 2004, provides $20 million per year through a parcel tax to fund such things as a violence-prevention program that includes young adult reentry services. And it is these young adults who Johnson is hiring.
“Hearing these guys’ stories made we want to help them transform their lives,” he says. “We all make mistakes. Some of us get caught with our mistakes. Some of us don’t.”
Although Johnson hired a fair number of ex-offenders in the several businesses he has owned –including the first Home of Chicken and Waffles, the restaurant he opened in the Jack London Square area of Oakland in 2004, and the second outlet, which began to serve southern soul food last year in suburban Walnut Creek – he still faces a few difficulties not normally found with other employees.
“The main challenge they face is developing basic work skills like calling in if you’re going to be late to work. It’s just basic common knowledge that most people in the workforce understand, but those who haven’t been in the workforce don’t,” he says.
Johnson has a training program for all his staff and doesn’t treat those on parole any differently. “We reach out with a level of concern, and say it’s OK. Just let us know what you don’t know,” he says.
Although he has compassion for their situation, “They also have to understand that as soon as they walk through the door their personal lives need to be left behind, and that can be a challenge” he says. “At the same time, you have someone who is very loyal and really appreciative about receiving a job.”
As for advice he would give to others who might be thinking about possibly hiring ex-offenders: “Make sure that you look at them and understand where they’re coming from and be empathetic toward them and don’t treat them any differently than any other employees. Don’t treat them like they’re the felon in the restaurant,” he says. “And there are resources out there for other employers. Use them.”
Being able to help people get back on their feet after being incarcerated is well worth the effort, according to Johnson. “Once given the chance, watching someone turn their life around and seeing their demeanor change and develop a sense of self worth and accomplishment is very rewarding,” he says.
For more information on Home of Chicken and Waffles and to check out the restaurants’ menu, visit www.homeofchickenandwaffles.com.
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