Skip to content

Community Bridge Builder Program: An Update

It’s always extraordinary to see the community’s endowment at work.

In 2022, the Community Foundation rolled out the new Community Bridge Builders Program, which promotes bold, visionary, and collaborative projects that honor differences between people, promote greater levels of understanding, and enhance civic dialogue.

Learn how the Lancaster Chamber and Lancaster-Lebanon IU13 used this funding to host a round table conversation and offer insights on hiring reentrants as a way to fight stigma and alleviate workforce shortages.

This article by Cris Collingwood was originally featured in Central Penn Business Journal on July 31, 2023. 

Read Original


A Potential Solution to Workforce shortage

Cris Collingwood, for Central Penn Business Journal, July 31, 2023


Could reentrants help alleviate the workforce shortage? 

That is a question the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce posed to business owners earlier this summer. 

Katharine DeSantis, Lancaster Chamber public policy coordinator, said people reentering the workforce after incarceration could be an untapped resource for employers dealing with the workforce shortage. 

The chamber and IU13 Community Education held a Wake Up to the Issues program in February to offer insights on hiring reentrants as a way to fill jobs. The program was funded by the Lancaster County Community Foundation’s Community Bridge Builders grant. 

In June, the chamber hosted roundtable discussions for specific industries for a more in-depth conversation around the topic, DeSantis said. About 60 employers participated. 

Employers asked questions about the stigma of hiring reentrants, would they steal, how to work with the parole system, and what other employees may feel about reentrants, she said. 

“Reentrants are often dedicated, loyal employees,” DeSantis said. “There is a 30% unemployment rate among reentrants, so they are grateful to get a job.” 

Shea Zwerver, workforce relations manager for Flagger Force, said the company has been hiring reentrants for some time.  Mike Doner, president and CEO, who co-founded the company in 2002, has always tried to give people a fair chance at employment, she said. 

“That’s been part of the company’s culture. This aligns with our mission,” Zwerver said. 

The experience has been positive.  

“The employees express gratitude and appreciation,” she said. “They are most grateful they can get hired quickly.” 

DeSantis said prisons offer training and certifications, so people come out with skills and are ready to work. 

“If you need employees, this can be a great asset,” she said. “It’s an untapped resource.” 

In 2022, Lancaster County Prison released 3,873 individuals with an average age of 38, according to the chamber.  

“These returning citizens are faced with barriers such as employment that provides few benefits, little to no opportunities for upward mobility, and lower wages than they earned before incarceration,” the chamber said in its promotional material to business owners. 

The Wake Up to the Issues program offered employers information on second chance efforts, how their business can get involved, and the work being done to equip those who have served their time with in-demand workforce skills.  

There are also incentives for companies to hire reentrants. The state Department of Labor and Industry has a tax credit program that offers credits for a portion of their wages and the Federal Bonding program through the U.S. Department of Labor offers up to $5,000 against losses of property or money caused by a dishonest act by bonded employees. 

“Companies that collect data – especially from the beginning of an effort – regarding fair chance hires, and other data points such as employment length, promotions and wage increases, and attendance can then look for positive correlations,”  Zwerver said. “For example, research shows that individuals with criminal records have high retention rates. The more examples and data we can provide to strengthen these findings will help break stigma typically associated with justice-involved individuals as well as support the business case. 

DeSantis said the employers that attended the roundtable discussions were open to learning more about the process of hiring reentrants. 

“We have a very low unemployment rate, creating labor shortages,” DeSantis said. “This is an option.” 

DeSantis said during the roundtables, the chamber had a reentrant at the table to break down the stigma that can be associated with being involved in the penal system.  

“They saw that this person wasn’t scary and it made it real,” she said. “The employers were able to ask questions and find out what barriers there might be for showing up for a job.” 

DeSantis said some reentrants, especially those who were incarcerated for a long time, might not have identification or transportation. 

Zwerver said for Flagger Force, the transportation issue is usually not a problem as the company has a large fleet of vehicles.  

“We pair new hires with veteran employees to give them rides to the job sites,” she said. 

DeSantis said some companies have blanket policies around not hiring anyone with a criminal background, which might not be a best practice policy. 

She cited an example of an employee who worked for a company for a year before the company ran a background check. She said while the employee was doing a good job, the company fired him for a crime he committed more than 20 years ago.  

“That might not be a best practice policy,” DeSantis said. 

On the other hand, DeSantis said employees should be up front about their background so companies can consider if the match could be a good one.  

“If the person can’t be around children and the job requires it, obviously that wouldn’t be a match. But if the job is on a construction site and the conviction was about taxes, maybe it’s not a problem,” DeSantis said. 

Workforce solutions are part of the chamber’s pro-business agenda, she added. 

“We look for unique and creative ways to solve issues and reentrants came out as part of that,” she said, adding that employers should consider that a criminal background might not mean prison or even a conviction.  

Zwerver said hiring reentrants has been rewarding for Flagger Force.  

“This is an effective talent strategy, and it impacts the lives of families and the community,” Zwerver said. “We are tapping into a workforce on the fringe and the employees are talented and dedicated.” 

Zwerver said the company takes some risk with hiring anyone new with or without a background, so she said the company has been open to this resource. 

“It all goes back to our company culture of respect and our commitment to honor, diversity and inclusivity,” she said.