Previously Convicted Felons Barred from Stimulus Employment in Virginia? Part One

This past Tuesday I learned that Virginian county agencies are preventing companies from employing previously convicted felons for stimulus projects (e.g. the low-income weatherization program) funded by the Recovery Act – also known as the $787 billion stimulus package passed by Congress in February. This saddened me on several levels – firstly, if there is indeed policy that’s preventing people with past criminal histories from trying to turn their lives around, what’s the incentive for ANYONE in those situations to try and improve their lives? Secondly, if business owners are hiring previously convicted felons to try to give them a second lease on life, such a policy would not only prevent this from happening but would also mean that businesses would have to rehire/replace their workforce for Recovery-funded projects ONLY, which doesn’t make any sense at all. Thirdly, many previously convicted felons have families that they need to support too. Why punish their families? I can only imagine that people with criminal records find it difficult enough on a regular basis to find jobs to support themselves and/or their families. Why should the stimulus bill make it harder for these people?

I’m not sure how much I can do to help in this situation, but I felt compelled to at least start by trying to identify in the legislation where such a restriction may come from. I knew there was a restriction in the Recovery Act against using appropriated funds for casinos/gambling establishment, aquariums, zoos, golf courses, or swimming pools (sec. 1604) – but I hadn’t heard otherwise of a restriction against hiring previously convicted felons for stimulus projects. A quick search of the bill didn’t turn up any results for “convict” or “felon.” Searching for “criminal” turned up a few results, but none directly applicable to the situation. The closest I came to was sec. 502 (d), about how criminal background checks may be done on applicants for small business loans – which may be the legalese equivalent of barring people with criminal backgrounds from receiving loans, but to me does not equate to a “previous convicted felons cannot work on stimulus project” mandate.

Since a quick search through the Act didn’t turn up any results, I decided to see if federal agencies can shine more light on the matter. I started with the Department of Energy because they manage the low-income weatherization program, and sent in an inquiry through their Recovery contact form. To be perfectly honest, I thought my question would fall into the black hole of bureaucracy and never expected to hear back. To my great surprise and delight, I got a call three days later from a kind employee at Energy’s Recovery Act Clearinghouse. She told me that after having done some research within the agency, the Department of Energy has no such policy restriction against employing previously convicted felons on Recovery projects. However, she added that the Department of Labor or the Virginia state government may have specific restrictions.

I plan to follow up with both Labor and the Virginia government and see if I can get to the source of this “policy.” I am however encouraged by the positive start – and am incredibly impressed by the Department of Energy’s excellent customer service!

This is part one of four in the “Previously Convicted Felons Barred from Stimulus Employment in Virginia?” series. Follow the discussion through parts one, two, three, and four.

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