U.S. Rubber Recycling Inc.’s Bounce Back! program offers employment to formerly incarcerated job seekers

Bounce Back!

Jeff Baldassari, president and CEO of U.S. Rubber Recycling, created Bounce Back!

At Jails to Jobs we’ve noticed a dramatic increase in the number of calls we get from companies that are interested in being second-chance employers. As second-chance hiring gains momentum, we plan to highlight some of the businesses that have been successful in this realm. We hope that our first example, U.S. Rubber Recycling, Inc. and its Bounce Back! program, will offer inspiration and ideas to those considering doing something similar.

While second-chance hiring is still far from the norm, it has become an integral part of a growing number of companies across the U.S. Take U.S. Rubber Recycling, Inc. of Colton, Calif., for example. This manufacturer turns discarded tires into sports flooring and other products and men and women who were formerly incarcerated into productive employees.

And the company can credit Jeff Baldassari, its president and CEO, for that achievement. Although it has been hiring people who were formerly incarcerated for two decades, it wasn’t until Baldassari came on board 2-1/2 years ago that the practice truly became part of the company’s culture.

Jeff Baldassari, president and CEO, created Bounce Back!

Baldassari gave it a name — Bounce Back! —  and established the program as the heart and soul of U.S. Rubber Recycling. In line with the company’s mission, Bounce Back! offers job opportunities to people who might otherwise find it difficult to gain employment. And it also grants a new life to rubber tires that might otherwise end up in a landfill.

“Bounce Back! gives us a sense of pride and identity. Employees who have been here for more than a decade and are ex-felons serve as role models for others who were hired more recently,” Baldassari says. “We have T-shirts and hats. It’s inspirational. We all want a second chance in life. You don’t have to be an ex-felon to want to bounce back.”

Hiring formerly incarcerated employees is at the heart of the company’s culture

In addition to being the main focus of the company’s branding, Bounce Back! gives U.S. Rubber Recycling a chance to expand its workforce and gain loyal and long-lasting employees.

According to Baldassari, hiring individuals who were formerly incarcerated became a necessity for U.S. Rubber Recycling as it struggled to find employees in a very tight job market.

“We’re in the Inland Empire (of California) in the largest distribution center in the U.S., and competition for employees is very high,” he says. “The labor pool is limited because of the distributors gobbling up employees. You have to expand your pool of applicants.”

And for U.S. Rubber Recycling, one way to do that was to hire more workers who were formerly incarcerated.

Business is undergoing dramatic growth

“Our workforce is about 65 employees now, and 50% of the factory workers are ex-felons. But I expect by the end of 2025 we’ll have 200 employees,“ Baldassari says.

And that  practice will continue to expand, as the company’s sales increase.

Covid had a major impact on U.S. Rubber Recycling’s business and helped it to grow in a new direction. The manufacturer previously relied heavily on a business-to-business model, selling flooring to gyms and health clubs. After Covid hit, the company pivoted to a business-to-consumer model.

“Our internet customers skyrocketed,” he says. “So many people were doing home gyms. Then we developed a relationship with Home Depot. Now that the economy’s opened up again, the commercial business is coming back.”

And it has all contributed to the company’s success. “Our business is skyrocketing,” he says. “Last year we grew 40%, this year 60%-70%, and next year we expect 50% sales growth. By the end of next year our sales will have more than tripled between 2019 and 2022.”

U.S. Rubber Recycling added 26 factory jobs in the past year and currently has five openings that it is trying to fill. Most applicants with prior justice system involvement are referred by local nonprofits and government agencies.

The secret to the company’s success

After hiring someone who was formerly incarcerated, U.S. Rubber Recycling does something different than most other companies who hire from the same population, according to Baldassari.

“The first step is a meeting with a psychiatric rehabilitation counselor,” he says. “Her name is Nancy Lambert. She is the first person people will talk to in order to make sure that they are emotionally and mentally ready to be in the workforce. And that they will be a good fit within our organization.”

After they’re hired, Lambert, who has a master’s degree in psychiatric vocational rehabilitation counseling, provides counseling to the workers on a regular basis. She meets with them face-to face or by phone and teaches them how to open a bank account and establish rapport with coworkers. Her relationship with each employee is totally confidential. And no one knows who Nancy is talking with or what they’re talking about. She previously spent one day a week at the factory but in October was hired as the company’s full-time human resources manager.

U.S. Rubber Recycling faces serious challenges

“Employees hired at U.S. Rubber Recycling need skills. “They have to have some kind of mechanical aptitude. And attitude is very important. Emotional maturity is very, very important. That’s why we get Nancy involved,” Baldassari says.

Although the hiring rate is high at 75% of those interviewed by Nancy, the challenge, according to Baldassari, is how many people can keep their job.

The biggest challenge overall “is changing ex-felons from selfish individuals to team players,” Baldassari says. “Selfishness is a technique they developed to survive in prison. But a factory is all about teamwork. You rely on the person next to you on both sides.”

As we’ve learned at Jails to Jobs, in fact, reentering society from a prison environment can prove incredibly challenging. Most people who are incarcerated must protect themselves from danger and harm, both mentally and physically. This can force them to be hyper-vigilant and distrusting of others in order to survive. Once released from incarceration, learning to trust other people and feel safe takes time, and it’s not easy. But it can and does happen. And a supportive environment can play a major role in that process.

Achieving success at work

Success on the job also includes showing up every day. “If you don’t show up every day, someone else has to pick up the slack. It takes a while for that to get through,” he adds.

“A lot of times they don’t know how their behavior affects their future. They have to learn that if you don’t show up for work you’re jeopardizing your job. Many of these people didn’t learn life skills, because they were incarcerated during their formative years.”

Although it may be difficult at first, studies have proved that workers who were formerly incarcerated end up making excellent employees. Johns Hopkins Medicine, which operates six hospitals and other healthcare facilities, conducted a five-year study of 500 previously justice involved workers and found a lower turnover among the group than among those who’d never spent time in jail or prison.

A report by the ACLU that includes stories of companies that hire people who were formerly incarcerated highlights Total Wine & More, which has stores in 20 states. The company discovered that employees with previous justice involvement had a 12 percent lower annual first-year turnover rate than those without. For cashiers it was 14 percent, merchandising employees 11 percent and wine assistants 11 percent.

The rewards make up for the challenges

Although U.S. Rubber faces many challenges in its hiring of prior justice system involved individuals, the rewards are many.

“You see the pride in them. What I’ve also noticed when we’ve hired an ex-felon, is that they’re emotionless. They’re numb. They don’t get happy They don’t get angry. And they’re in a mental place where they’re not sure whether what they can contribute will work,” says Baldassari. “But suddenly they have a job. Their opinion and their contribution matters. It’s fulfilling to see someone turn around from being numb and have low self-esteem to being proud and happy. It’s pretty easy to see the transformation.”

Advice for other companies

Those interested in becoming second-chance employers must carefully consider how they plan to do it.

“If you don’t do things differently you’re destined to fail. The culture of the company has to embrace the ex-felon. We don’t want murderers, rapists, kidnappers or child molesters. But we’ll take anything else,” Baldassari says. “We don’t ask any questions about their past. The past is over. Instead we ask, ‘What do you want to become?’ Not dwell on what they used to be.”

Above all, Baldassari recommends hiring a social worker to help them transition from being incarcerated to being a productive employee.

“You’re bringing in folks with tremendous skills and potential. But if you don’t bring up their maturity level and stabilize them emotionally, they could become their own worst enemy,” he says.

Editor’s note: If your company has launched a second-chance hiring initiative, we’d love to hear from you and maybe profile your efforts. The more stories we tell and the more information we share, the more quickly this movement to hire formerly incarcerated individuals will spread. You too can be part of the effort to reduce recidivism.

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