On Jan. 4, 2012, 17-year-old Francesca Yerks of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, stole a $20 shirt from the store where she worked. She was a single mom and struggling financially. And she knew it was wrong. The municipal ticket she received for the theft totaled just over $300. It took time to pay it off, but she did − believing that was the best way to move forward.
Listen to Francesca tell her story:
To support herself and her young child, she applied for other jobs. But she was rejected every time she made it to the background check stage. Francesca had no idea her act of poor judgment as a young adult would create a criminal record that prevented her from finding stable employment. “I felt ashamed of myself,” she said. “I didn’t know which direction to go, so I pretty much felt stuck.”
Francesca with her children, Isaiah and Isabella.
Francesca’s experience is all too common. Research shows that more than half of people with criminal records face significant obstacles in obtaining meaningful employment, even if they have paid their debt to society, are unlikely to re-offend and are qualified for the job for which they are applying. That's why the Labor Department is committed to eliminating unnecessary barriers to employment for people like Francesca through grant programs like Face Forward. These programs are designed to give young people a second chance to succeed in the workforce through both job training as well as legal services. The latter is now part of more than 20 federal agencies’ strategies for fighting poverty in the U.S., under an initiative led by the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable. In 2014, Francesca learned about Harambe Community Center, a subsidiary of Face Forward grant recipient WestCare Wisconsin. The center referred her to its legal aid partner, Legal Action of Wisconsin. Legal Action of Wisconsin attorney Christine Donahoe took up Francesca’s case and was able to have the ticket dismissed. She also had the state of Wisconsin remove it from Francesca’s criminal record. Almost immediately after the ticket was expunged, Francesca got a good job at a bank call center – a position for which she previously had applied but had been rejected after a background check. Today she works for the city of Milwaukee as well as a car rental company.
Francesca and her supervisor at her current job laying asphalt for the city of Milwaukee.
“I’ve learned my lesson. If I do not have the money for something, we’ll just go without it. Or I’ll work more overtime at both jobs and eventually we will have it,” she said, adding, “It’s a good thing to have an income coming in to support yourself.” After hearing First Lady Michelle Obama say that “education is the key to freedom,” Francesca’s been determined to further her own career as well as make a difference in the lives of others who need a positive role model. Her long-term goals include becoming a judge or a detective, and she dreams about establishing a group home for teenage girls one day. She says there is a critical need for the kind of legal aid services she received, but that too many young people aren’t aware that these kinds of services even exist. “I feel like I can accomplish anything now,” she shared. “Nothing’s going to stop me, especially my background for sure. And with that being said, I think that I’ll be able to support and give my kids a better life than what I had, and show them how to work for what they want. So I think my future is going to be really bright, I believe that.” Editor’s note: For help finding employment or job training resources, visit careeonestop.org. Employers can find additional resources for hiring people with criminal records here. For more information on the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, visit justice.gov/lair. The “DOL Working for You” series highlights the Labor Department’s programs in action. View other blog posts in the series here. Tiffany Koebel is a public affairs specialist for the Labor Department.