The nonprofit JustDane held a virtual discussion Wednesday evening on the challenges the previously incarcerated face in finding employment and the ways employers can help. JustDane is a nonprofit that supports individuals with a history of incarceration and homelessness.

Just Bakery Program Coordinator Jaclyn Eitrem hosted the discussion with City of Madison Equal Opportunities Manager Byron Bishop and American Family Insurance skill-based volunteer Todd Micholic.

Most of the complaints the Equal Opportunities Division receives are about discrimination against those who have been arrested or convicted, Bishop said. Some employers don’t follow Madison’s Equal Opportunities ordinance and many complainants aren’t sure of their rights, Bishop added.

“We spent a lot of time correcting people about [the ordinance] and talking and educating folks about what our ordinance actually says,” Bishop said.

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The previously incarcerated face much higher rates of unemployment than the general public, according to a 2018 report from the Prison Policy Initiative.

While America’s rate of unemployment for the general public was 5.8% in 2008, the rate for the previously incarcerated was 27.3%. That was even higher than the peak of unemployment during the Great Depression, which was 24.9%.

Some groups are working to help individuals transition from prison life to civic life — the National Alliance on Mental Illness Dane County provides several resources for those hoping to return home, including an online guide for re-entry into the community.

The Equal Opportunities Division also offers a free “Certified Community Partner” program that gives advice to community-based organizations working with people who may be experiencing discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations, Bishop said.

So far, 40 to 50 local organizations have become certified and the division’s training and outreach have reached over 2,400 individuals in Madison, Bishop said.

“I’m excited to see what this new year brings,” Bishop said. “Because the more folks that get educated on this, … the better I think we are overall.”

Micholic said diversity and inclusivity should start at a company’s leadership and continue throughout the organization. For example, American Family Insurance measures their recruiters to ensure they are hiring a certain percentage of people to make up a more diverse workforce, Micholic said.

Equally as important is retaining the new employees and making everyone feel welcome and part of the mission, Micholic said.

“If you don’t see somebody that looks like you, it’s a lot harder to believe that people are standing up for the rights of the people that [have been] previously discriminated against in other places,” Micholic said. “… So to see people of color, to see different ethnic groups, to see women in leadership roles is important and we’ve worked really hard to do that.”

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The discussion, “Creating a Just Workplace: Not Just a Numbers Game” is the first of JustDane’s 2022 JustConverations series.