For the last four years, Paul has faced significant obstacles in securing steady employment, despite having a high school diploma and a year of college education under his belt. Paul applied to positions at Walmart, McDonalds, different security companies – any opening he learned of during his frequent visits to a local career center. Time and again, Paul was turned down and told he wasn’t qualified.
To change all that, Paul completed a construction apprenticeship program. Less than two weeks after he graduated, Paul had strong prospects with a construction company and a major utility company. Amidst all this good news, however, Paul received a letter that brought his forward momentum to a halt.
A “Notice of Proposed Revocation” informed Paul that his driver’s license could be revoked because of overdue child support payments. Paul had known about the child support order, but it simply wasn’t something he could afford to pay. The amount was based on his salary at a job he had lost more than a year before the order was set. Paul made cash payments directly to the child’s mother whenever he could, not realizing that those payments “didn’t count” because he was supposed to make them through the District government. After months without income he ran out of money to make any payments. But if Paul lost his license, none of the positions for which he now qualified would be available to him, and he’d be right back where he started – unable to pay his child support. Now what?
We must break the underlying legal barriers to employment.
It is no secret that getting and keeping a stable job, let alone a job that pays a living wage, is already a challenge for far too many people living in poverty in D.C. and across the nation. Black workers and young workers were hit particularly hard by the recession, and unemployment rates for several groups of workers remain high today, including those without a college degree. While the overall unemployment level in the District is 7.5%, unemployment levels in Wards 5, 7, and 8 hover in the 15 to 20% range, with poverty rates as high as 25% (Ward 7) and 34% (Ward 8).
D.C. residents and advocates have improved the pathway to jobs with decent wages in part through successful efforts to raise the minimum wage, strengthen wage theft laws, remove criminal history questions from job applications, and develop employment training programs like the construction apprenticeship sought out by Paul. But, as Paul’s story reveals, these efforts aren’t always enough.
Among the legal barriers to employment are: criminal or arrest records, poor or inaccurate credit reports, child support arrears and suspended drivers’ licenses, domestic violence, prior homelessness or lack of stable housing, and other issues that may appear unrelated to employment. These barriers may distract even the most dedicated job seekers from their search, prevent a skill-based assessment of their application, threaten the credentials that make them eligible for sought-after positions, and hinder their ability to keep employment once it is secured.
As Paul’s story shows, overdue child support payments can cause job seekers to lose their driver’s licenses, contribute to negative credit reports, and ultimately can lead to jail time. Prior arrests and convictions may cause employers to reject an applicant without ever assessing whether that conviction is relevant to job performance. Ongoing domestic violence, custody disputes, unstable housing, and financial instability due to debt and predatory lending can all cause significant disruption to job searches and job retention.
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For example, how does someone who is homeless or couch surfing receive information from potential employers? Or complete an application form that requires an address? Or maintain appropriate clothing for an interview? How can a mother whose children are chronically ill from sub-standard housing conditions avoid absenteeism? The longer these issues persist, the more likely they are to affect job seekers and workers who lack other resources to help them cope with financial stress. And what happens when these vulnerable workers do not receive the wages they are due or are subject to excessive garnishments?
These concerns do not need to be faced alone. In many cases, civil legal services can help remove these barriers by:
- Securing the restoration of driver’s licenses
- Overcoming problems associated with arrest or conviction records, including record sealing, improper employer inquiries, mistaken identities or other inaccuracies
- Providing information about credit records, correcting inaccuracies, and advising how to respond to prospective employer inquiries
- Advocating for individuals whose child support payments are set unreasonably high or have become overdue, particularly when the individual is threatened with incarceration or loss of a driver’s license
- Securing protection or resolving problems associated with domestic violence, child custody disputes, and child support
- Improving and stabilizing housing and addressing health problems affecting family members, including those caused by dangerous living conditions
- Recovering unpaid wages and remedying other forms of workplace mistreatment
Not long after Paul received notice that his driver’s license might be revoked, his apprenticeship program hosted attorneys from Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP). The attorneys informed the trainees about the civil legal underpinnings of common hurdles facing job seekers. After participating in the presentation, Paul sought NLSP help. An attorney prevented the suspension of Paul’s license and is now helping him secure a child support payment plan that more closely matches the amount he is currently able to pay. Shortly after he found out his license was safe, Paul got the flagger job on a construction crew, his first full-time position since 2011.
Advocating for a living wage and job training is necessary, but is also insufficient for many people who are seeking to enter or stay in the workforce. That’s one reason why access to civil legal aid is so critical to workforce development and anti-poverty efforts. Working closely with community groups, social service agencies, and job training programs, civil legal aid programs can help job seekers identify and break these legal barriers to employment.