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Opinion: Federal bonding is safety net for hiring at-risk staff

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Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to visit the maximum-security prison in Jefferson City.

To my surprise, I witnessed the development of job skills and training in the trades for individuals exiting the prison system within the next year or so. Get this: The warden said they are closing one of the prisons because of successful programs that are giving inmates the opportunity to learn a trade while incarcerated.

This experience reminded me of my prior employment when I was a project director in Baltimore for privatized child support.

One of our performance measures was to increase payments of child support for noncustodial parents who had not paid support in over a year. At that time, 2006-07, the unemployment rate was high and most of our noncustodial parents were incarcerated, on probation/payroll or were considered ex-offenders. We set up community workshops to identify barriers to employment and connected the noncustodial parents to nonprofit organizations to address barriers that kept them from paying child support.

We discovered a large number in the thousands of noncustodial parents who wanted to work or wanted a better paying job but were not given the opportunity because of past offensives. Then, we learned about the Federal Bonding Program established through the U. S. Department of Labor in 1966.

The program was designed to empower employers to view ex-offenders and other at-risk job applicants as potential employees. Federal bonding was one way an employer could be protected. Employers received the bonds free of charge as an incentive to hire at-risk job seekers.

The bond is designed to reimburse the employer for any loss due to employment theft of money or property with no deductible amount to become the employer’s liability. We were able to exceed our performance measures by partnering with employers who participated in the Federal Bonding Program.

In Missouri, the state Department of Corrections re-entry process utilizes the Federal Bonding Program and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit.

The bonding program covers any type of stealing, theft, embezzlement, forgery or larceny. It is not a bail bond, court bond or self-employment bond. It is designed for employers to feel more comfortable in hiring at-risk job seekers for gainful employment. At-risk job seekers include ex-offenders, recovering substance abusers, persons with poor financial credit, economically disadvantaged youth and adults who lack work history, dishonorable discharged military personnel and others.

The bonds are issued instantly, effective on the date an applicant is scheduled to start work. For more information, contact the Missouri Department of Economic Development, Division of Workforce Development or the local Missouri Job Center, in Springfield, Branson or Monett.

The Work Opportunity Tax Credit is available to employers who hire individuals with significant barriers to employment. This includes ex-felons, those in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program or receiving food stamps, veterans, vocational rehabilitation referrals, supplemental Social Security recipients and summer youth programs. For more information, visit DOLETA.gov.

With the low unemployment rate, most recently reported at 3.2 percent statewide in January, these could be two ways to fill vacant positions and give someone a fresh start.

Francine Pratt is director of Prosper Springfield, a poverty reduction initiative led by Community Partnership of the Ozarks and United Way of the Ozarks. She can be reached at fpratt@cpozarks.org.

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