The last couple of times Brenda Peterson had job openings in her court-reporting company, she filled the positions with members of an unlikely pool of candidates: ex-convicts, or more politely put, the formerly incarcerated. It sounds frightening, but when I arrive at the swanky downtown offices of Brenda Peterson Reporting, a young woman with a bright smile calls the office manager who then gives me a tour. Along the way, the office manager introduces me to the production team, the sales team, the calendaring team, and the man in the video room. None of them look like felons.
“A lot of people tell me, ‘In a million years, I would never think you had some kind of a criminal background,’” Beverly Camerino says.
It’s a few minutes after the tour, and we’re sitting in a conference room lit with the natural light from wall-to-wall windows that overlook a huge outdoor terrace. Camerino, the 31-year-old woman who greeted me when I first arrived, sits up straight in her chair and talks about her new life in a strong voice. When I ask questions about her old life, she starts at the six-month drug-treatment program she entered in September 2013. And when I inquire further back than that, the brightness of her face dulls, and she sketches a vague picture of a life of “theft, robbery, and selling drugs.”
That old life wasn’t terribly long ago. She has been with Brenda Peterson Reporting for only seven months. It was the first job she interviewed for after graduating from a one-month job-readiness program, which she began straight out of the drug program. Just over a year ago, Camerino sat in jail looking at a “county year” — an eight-month incarceration in county jail. On the advice of a friend, she requested, and was sentenced to, drug treatment and probation instead.
Prior to her three-month stint (awaiting sentencing) in jail, Camerino hadn’t held a job in six years. Before that, she had worked a few months here and there as a medical assistant in area hospitals. How was it that she landed a $13-an-hour full-time job with benefits (after 90 days), straight out of the gate?
Enter Brenda Peterson. In 2008, Peterson decided she wanted to volunteer somewhere. She went online, puttered around a bit, and then remembered a story she’d seen on 60 Minutes back in the late 1990s. The television show featured a program in Harlem called STRIVE, which offered job-readiness training to the “chronically unemployed.” After following a few links online, she contacted Second Chance, a nonprofit on Imperial Avenue whose job-readiness program is modeled after STRIVE. The administrators at Second Chance invited Peterson to sit in on an orientation for program participants.
“The room was filled with about 80 potential students. It was a little scary,” Peterson confesses over the phone the day before I meet Camerino. “They asked the question, ‘How many of you have ever been convicted of a felony?’ Almost all the hands in the room went up, and I was, like, ‘Holy crap, where’s the exit?’”
Peterson decided to hang around anyway. She, did, however, have a list of volunteer positions she did not want. No answering phones, no paperwork, no fundraising. She wanted to do something that would be helpful and give her direct contact with the people she was serving. When David Benites, the job developer, asked whether she’d like to come in at the program’s end each month to conduct mock interviews, she agreed.
“At that time, I think I’d had my business for over 20 years, so I’d done tons and tons — hundreds, probably — of interviews,” she says. For the past six years, Peterson has gone to Second Chance once a month for three and a half hours to guide the participants through the mock interview process and to critique their performance. The process takes place at the end of the four-week program, after the students have been trained in eye contact, smiling, handshaking, punctuality, and other interview skills. While these skills might seem basic, the 160-hour workforce training program places a strong emphasis on personal accountability, a concept that takes more than handshake practice to instill.
In her 2013 graduation speech, a woman named Gwendolyn C., who had been incarcerated for 32 of her 54 years by the time she joined the program, said, “I thought I had it all together, but going through Second Chance, showed me there were a lot of rules I didn’t know about. Miss Tonya [Rindskopf, her trainer] had to get all up in my face more than once, but finally I surrendered my arrogance and learned to be humble.”
Peterson says her job facilitating the mock interviews is the easy part.
“When I come in, their lives have already been transformed,” she says. “I’m just doing the detail work with them, the nuances.”
In early 2014, Peterson did a mock interview with Beverly Camerino, who recalls the experience with pride.
“Brenda was, like, ‘That has got to be one of the best interviews I’ve done,’” she says. “Based on my appearance, my answers, and I guess my whole demeanor and how I carried myself.”
The following week, when Peterson called Benites to announce a job opening at her firm, she requested that he send Camerino along with any other candidates he thought qualified. So far, Camerino has proven herself to be, in Peterson’s words, “very enthusiastic, intelligent, and as it turns out, very accurate in being able to get down the information that we need.”
Peterson’s employees include 40 independently contracted court reporters and 3 videographers who work out in the field, plus the 16 people who work on production, transcribing, tech, and calendaring in her B Street office. Her clients include law firms, governmental agencies, and corporations. Camerino is often the first contact when someone walks in or calls the office. Besides fielding phone calls, she is also responsible for scheduling the reporters for hearings and depositions.
Peterson never did make a big announcement about the backgrounds of the two employees she hired through Second Chance. She left it up to them to reveal to their coworkers or not. And while she expresses no hesitancy in speaking with me, she does question how her clients will respond to the idea of any of her employees having a less-than-desirable history.
“I would hope that our clients would trust me enough to know that I’m only going to hire people that are responsible and honest and want to do a good job because that’s who I’ve hired,” she says. “But I really have no way of knowing.”
Our employees have convictions
Just after noon on a Wednesday in early August, Bryan Gustafson leads a mock interview in one of the classrooms at Second Chance on Imperial Avenue. Gustafson, a recruiter from Goodwill Industries of San Diego County, listens politely while the man in the chair in front of him explains that he’s perfect for the call-center position.
“I have the ability to convey a smile over the phone,” the man says.
Most of the other program participants sit in two rows of chairs on one side of the long, narrow room. Another four, the rest of this session’s interviewees, sit in a shorter row off to the side looking over their notes and résumés. A hanging rack at one end of the room holds a half dozen men’s suit jackets and a few dozen long blue satiny robes. In two days, this group will graduate from the job-readiness program.
Today, everyone in the room is dressed in slacks and button-up shirts or skirts and dresses, mostly in grays or other neutral tones. One woman wears all black except for a set of white pearls. Later, Gustafson will tell me that Goodwill would potentially hire these students after graduation from the program, “depending on the nature of the position and the nature of the offense.”
For example, someone with a theft background might not end up in a retail position or handling donations, he says, but rather in an administrative or customer-service position. The company, however, “might shy away from” someone with a conviction of a violent offense.
“Our mission is to help individuals with disabilities and other barriers to employment find work. It’s kind of in our wheelhouse to help individuals that do have criminal convictions,” he says. “A large population of our  employees have convictions.”
Gustafson hasn’t come here today to recruit anyone, but he has brought business cards to pass out to the students. The cards include the Goodwill website address where they can apply for entry-level positions such as retail cashiers, donation-center attendants, and donation processors/sorters.
Since 2003, Second Chance has placed over 4000 graduates in positions with nearly 2000 employers. In 2013, 168 program graduates found work in 88 industry sectors, including 31 in accommodation and food services, 11 in retail trade, 6 in construction, and 11 in health care and social assistance. They averaged a $9.94 starting wage, the lowest single person starting at $7.25 in farming, fishing, and forestry, and the highest group of 13 averaging $14.15 in installation, maintenance, and repair.
Many employers contact Benites when they have openings. And because he’s familiar with the skill sets and experiences of each of the graduates, he’ll send a few that match the employer’s needs. Program graduates, however, are encouraged not to wait for such an opportunity, but to follow all leads.
“After graduation, all of our graduates come right back here on Monday morning, and that’s when the job search starts,” says Trisha Gooch, the development director at Second Chance. “They sit in that computer room, and that’s where they start applying, applying, applying.”
At the moment, the program participants are on a lunch break, and Gooch, Robert Coleman (the executive director), and I sit chatting in Gooch’s office. They inform me that only about 50 percent of people who enroll in the program will graduate, sometimes fewer. In 2013, 534 people enrolled and 154 graduated. Making it all the way to the end of the training is mandatory for those who want to be considered for job openings.
“We only [recommend] people who have graduated from our program because we can vouch for them and their attitudes,” Gooch says.
The program itself weeds out those who aren’t ready. The refusal or inability to stay clean and sober weeds out the first group. Staffers perform random drug tests during four-week training. Those who fail are excused and encouraged to re-enroll in the program at a later date.
“Attitude is the real problem,” Coleman says. “Sometimes people turn up and say, ‘Give me a job. I’m okay. I just need the job.’ But of the four weeks, two weeks isn’t talking about jobs at all. It’s just talking about you and the way you present yourself, the way you smile, the way you articulate, your attitude. We don’t get into résumés and job-search skills until the third week. There’s no point in that if the way you greet someone is the way you would greet someone on the [prison] yard.”
Through the program, participants have to learn to define their lives in new terms. For some, this is as basic as learning to smile, which Gooch says she’s heard from many is the hardest part.
“[Benites] works on that over and over and over again,” she says. “Smile during the interview, smile when you walk in, smile when you’re answering questions — just keep smiling because it sets the tone that ‘I’m here and I really want to work with you.’”
It’s becoming easier for me to see how some people who come in just looking for a job would flee when confronted with the idea of “getting rid of fears and building up self-esteem again.” I ask if they usually see a lot of tears in those first two weeks.
Gooch bursts into laughter.
“The first two weeks?” Coleman says. “Oh, my goodness, the whole time.”
How you carry yourself
Comic-Con attendees might be surprised to know there’s a good likelihood that at least one of the “guest services” guards they see managing the lines has a criminal background. Of the 350 “team members” that AOne Show Services employs, more than 50 graduated from the Second Chance job-readiness program. They also work boat shows, street fairs, and trade shows around town.
When I ask Fale Pili, the operations manager at AOne, why his company is so dedicated to hiring from this pool of candidates, at first he offers vague reasoning peppered with the word “karma” and the phrase “giving back to the community.” I believe him. The 57-year-old Pili also coaches Pop Warner football and sits on other committees for local organizations. Plus, he wants to be a life coach.
Still, there’s more to why AOne goes to Second Chance specifically for their hiring needs. It takes a bit of pestering, but Pili finally gives.
“They really do great screening. They create the deal-breakers. They don’t take arsonists and child molesters. They already screen them prior to them coming in,” he says.
Gooch confirms that, no, Second Chance does not accept arsonists or sex offenders in their programs. They perform background checks on program participants, much like an employer would. In the program brochure they provide for employers, they refer to it as a “pre-screening and in-depth selection process.” The brochure also mentions drug screening and follow-up for both employer and employee. The drug screening, Gooch says, refers to the random drug tests performed during the job-readiness program and for residents living in their eight sober-living homes.
But it’s not only the actual screening and oversight provided by the organization that Pili appreciates about Second Chance. It’s also the time and effort they put into personal presentation in their program.
He tells a brief story about trying to hire through a an organization called Coming Home to Stay and concludes it with a description at how appalled he was by the lack of professional presentation on the part of the job seekers. He has a “dress to impress” standard that the individuals coming through this other organization did not attempt to meet.
“We’re working at the convention center,” he says. “It’s all about presentation and how you carry yourself. A lot of times, the attendees that come to the convention center, it’s the first time they’ve been in San Diego. So, guess what? We are the face of San Diego. [At Second Chance], my goodness, it saves a lot of the headache. When we come to the interview and we do our own screening, it’s a whole lot easier. That’s why we come here.”
Nobody wanted to talk to me
Don Owens’s work history begins with an associate’s degree in menswear design marketing and includes nine years in the fashion industry, three years as manager of a retail greeting-card gift store, and nine years at Bank of America, where he served first as an executive secretary of a vice president, and then as a systems engineer.
In his 40s, he began partying, got into drugs, and eventually became addicted to crystal meth. In 2005, when Owens was living in Palm Springs, someone contacted his best friend looking for some GHB (gamma hydroxybutyric acid — also known as a date-rape drug). The drug seekers were in San Diego, and due to some obligation or other, the friend could not make the drop. So, as a favor, Owens drove down for him.
“Basically, I walked into a DEA setup,” Owens says. “That’s when I was convicted for felony possession with intent to sell. I got a county year and three years’ probation. I was in jail for basically seven or eight months.”
We’re sitting in the same conference room at Brenda Peterson Reporting where I spoke with Beverly Camerino. Don wears his white beard neatly trimmed and close to his face. Though his 55-year-old eyes appear weary, his rapid speech pattern offers a glimpse of the hard-partying young man he once was.
When he got out of jail, Owens went back to Palm Springs and lived with his best friend. He went back to drugs briefly but eventually got cleaned up again. Fortunately, Owens landed work through a temp agency that was willing to overlook his history. In 2008, his best friend got arrested, and Owens decided it was time to leave his Palm Springs life behind. He moved to San Diego, where another friend ran a sober-living home on 40th Street in Normal Heights. He stayed there for about a month and then moved to another on Bancroft Street in North Park.
“I had about a month’s worth of money to live off of, and I started looking for work,” he says. “This was the point where, faced with a felony conviction, I had all doors shut. I had a glorious four-page résumé with all this experience and nobody wanted to talk to me.”
Even temp agencies wouldn’t hire him. One, he says, looked at his résumé, said immediately she had someone in mind to send him to, and gave him an application to fill out.
“Of course, when I get to the felony conviction part, I answer ‘yes’ because of the law,” he says. “She looked at that and basically said to me, ‘I am so sorry, but I can’t hire you.’” (In July of this year, a new law went into effect in California banning the felony box on initial applications except in jobs that by law require a conviction background check.)
For a few months, Owens received unemployment, but when the payments ran out, he still had not found a job. He worked with counselors through the state Employment Development Department, and they were able to help him get an extension on the unemployment. Around the same time, he heard about Second Chance and decided to reach out to them because nothing he had done so far was working. They offered him a space in one of their sober-living houses and put him through the job-readiness program. For Owens, the interviewing skills and other aspects of the program felt elementary.
“I’m not the target demographic for that,” he says. “But where it did help me was to build my confidence and to trust that I could represent myself, who I was, and my experience, and I didn’t have to let my felony conviction stop me.”
His first job back out in the workforce was in the naval shipyards as a firewatch. It was, he says, “the most boring, worst job I’ve ever had in my life.” While there, he applied for a secretarial/administrative position for one of the officers, and though he got an interview, he did not get the job. After about a year, he was laid off and back to collecting unemployment. He stayed in the sober-living house for two years and maintained contact with David Benites, his job counselor.
“I made my presence known. I went down [to Second Chance]. I did everything I could,” he says. “It was difficult. This was so outside of my experience in my entire life. I mean, imagine you have 20 years of impeccable work experience and all of a sudden it means nothing.”
In 2010, he says, Benites told him, “We’re working with a woman named Brenda Peterson. She’s looking for somebody. I told her about you, and I think this is your job.”
According to both Owens and Peterson, the two hit it off right away. It’s been four years. Like Beverly Camerino, he started off as a calendar coordinator, scheduling reporters, scheduling depositions. He has since taken on the responsibility of billing and payables.
“It was a relief to get back into an environment I felt comfortable in and that I felt utilized my skills,” he says. “She hired me way above minimum wage. It wasn’t what I was used to making, obviously, but it was well-above minimum wage. There were points when I was making $85,000 a year. What I make now is nowhere near that, but you make the adjustments in your life.”
Today, Owens lives in Hillcrest with a roommate, and he’s in the final stages of getting a counseling certificate from City College. He’ll do his internship at Stepping Stone this fall.
“The confidence from where I’ve started to where I am today has changed greatly,” he says. “I’ve got a lot more responsibility than I had when I first started. Brenda has come to trust me to do stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily think a felon’s going to be responsible for.”
Nothing is beneath them
The “Employment Solutions” brochure that Second Chance hands out to employers contains a handful of facts from other sources about hiring, replacement, and turnover:
“The cost to hire replacements differs among the industries with the highest cost in engineering at $4,901 per employee and the lowest in assembly line factories at $300 per employee.” — Journal of Accountancy.
“Hiring the wrong entry-level person costs between $5,000 and $7,000 after three months, a $20,000 per year supervisor costs about $40,000.” — U.S. Department of Labor.
“Employee turnover and retraining costs amount to $1 billion annually.” — HR Magazine.
The brochure claims that hiring from the Second Chance labor pool will reduce recruitment costs, decrease turnover costs, and increase productivity.
When I ask Gooch what makes her think the organization can promise all this, she says, “They get someone who wants to work. We teach them, show up five minutes early, work five minutes into your lunch break, come back from lunch five minutes early, and stay five minutes longer at the end of the day. And then say, ‘Is there something else I can do for you?’ These people want to work, and nothing is beneath them. Our people have been beneath beneath, and they’re delighted to have a paycheck. They’re delighted to have a job.”
But they don’t promise it will work out for everyone. And sometimes it doesn’t.
Just before Brenda Peterson hired Beverly Camerino, she had hired another woman through Second Chance. The woman, she says, was “adorable, very sweet, kind, and enthusiastic.” She was also a single mother of three with a “crazy boyfriend” and had several absences within the first three months of employment.
“We changed her schedule to make it easier for her to drop her kids off at preschool and get to work on time. Even with our flexibility, she was not able to be punctual,” Peterson says.
The whole staff had liked her and was disappointed when Peterson had to let her go, especially given that she was a mother with three small children.
“I suppose I had a quick ‘knee-jerk’ momentary response about maybe I should not hire from Second Chance,” Peterson confesses. “[But] her personal challenges juggling her schedule had nothing to do with Second Chance and everything to do with her individual circumstances. I called David [Benites] the next week and was able to hire Beverly.”
Today, Camerino lives with her boyfriend (who got clean just before she did and provided the impetus for her to get clean herself) at her grandmother’s house. Her life is heading in a new direction, but she’s keeping her dreams grounded in reality. What she wants for herself right now is to reconnect with family, mend relationships, and pay her bills.
“Everybody shoots for, ‘I want to be a millionaire. I want to be a big star,’” she says. “I just want to live today. I try to live within my means and shoot for little things that make me happy. My boyfriend and I are actually saving money today to move out on our own. So, that’s one of my dreams, to get our own little place.”
It’s all still new to Camerino, and she admits that she still fears failure in part because she has disappointed her family so often in the past. But she has learned to celebrate her accomplishments and the life she lives now.
“Judge me all you want. I’m here doing something about my life today,” she says. “There’s probably a lot of people out there who know me as that girl out there on the streets and being heartless or whatever. But the steps that I took to change my life around? I took those steps. Not anybody else.”