The Next Step expands efforts to increase ex-offender job placement

Business HandshakeThe Next Step, Inc., a Lenexa, Kan.-based company that helps ex-offenders find employment and employers gain tax benefits for hiring them, is set to sign its first statewide contract with the state of Ohio this spring.

The company manages the CoFFE – Cooperative of Felon Friendly Employers – database, a nationwide network of employers who are willing to hire ex-offenders. It works with agencies and facilities that manage reentry for those leaving prisons.

“Fifty-percent of the Federal Bureau of Prison facilities enroll prisoners in The Next Step before their release,” says Julia Peterson, the company’s operations manager.

How it works: A felon being released from prison registers with The Next Step. They do it by locating the supervisory agency on the company’s website and filling out a form.

Those whose supervisory agency is not included on The Next Step’s website should have their case manager or parole or probation officer get in touch with the company.

Once registered, The Next Step matches that person with three ex-offender friendly employers based on the candidate’s geographical location and skill set and sends the list of those employers to the facility’s case manager. Rather than phone the potential employer, the candidate is urged to visit them and take a flyer explaining the Work Opportunity Tax Credit that companies will be able to obtain if they hire the ex-offender. Candidates can get free job leads for a year after their release.

If the candidate is not hired by one of the three leads provided, The Next Step will give their case manager three more leads. Once hired, The Next Step will contact the company that employs them, and through its sister company, WOTC Solutions, offer to help that company apply for the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which is done for a fee and helps fund the system and keep it going. Employers must file the application for the WOTC within 28 days of the employee’s start date.

The WOTC can be of great benefit to employers and a good reason for why they might want to hire ex-offenders. This federal program offers employers an up to $2,400 tax credit if they hire a member of nine targeted groups of people, including ex-offenders, who encounter barriers to employment. Companies can get up to this amount for each qualified employee they hire.

While major corporations usually have a tax screening service in place, WOTC Solutions appeals to smaller businesses, according to Peterson. “The best luck we have is with the small and medium-sized businesses – people who run their own businesses and have five to 50 employees,” she says. “Those people have time to hear about it (the program) and are often the ones who are hiring people with a blemished past.“

The Next Step has thousands of employers, ranging from those hiring manual labor to those looking for white-collar office workers, in its database. Where the company has the most success, however, is with call centers, restaurants and construction companies, all businesses that experience high turnover. Staffing companies are also good candidates, says Peterson.

While the company works with correctional facilities around the nation, this spring it will sign a statewide contract with Ohio to handle all the facilities in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. “This will give us a better example of how this works best, and we’ll have statistics and results to show others,” Peterson said.

She hopes more states will follow Ohio’s example, opening up more opportunities for ex-offenders to find good jobs and employers to find good workers.

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