Alvin Wilson started his first full-time job at age 60.
He’d spent his youth dealing drugs and getting into trouble; he spent 12 years in prison. Now Wilson finally has a steady paycheck, his own place and has reconnected with his 33-year-old son.
When he was released from prison, Wilson moved in with his sister in Yonkers, New York and found some odd jobs. Then five years ago, he heard about Greyston Bakery’s “open hiring” model.
The Yonkers-based bakery, which produces eight million pounds of brownies annually for customers including Ben & Jerry’s and Whole Foods Market, didn’t care about his work experience, job history, educational qualifications, references or even his criminal record.
Wilson only had to answer three questions: “Are you authorized to work in the U.S.? Can you stand for up to 12 hours? And can you lift over 50 pounds?”
At Greyston, jobs are offered on a first-come, first-served basis and a callback takes an average of six months. A worker starts off as a paid apprentice.
“I feel very responsible, like I’m doing the right thing and giving back to society,” said Wilson, who is now 65. “I love my work and I have never been late since I’ve been here.”
Greyston has used an open hiring model since its founding in 1982. In 2018, the company launched its Center for Open Hiring to guide other companies in implementing its model and to promote a more inclusive economy.
Joe Kenner, who took over in April as president and CEO of Greyston, the umbrella nonprofit that runs the bakery along with a workforce development program and other initiatives, said his vision is to see the practice and the philosophy of open hiring replicated throughout the country.
Inspired by Greyston’s model, The Body Shop, a U.K.-based cosmetics company, announced it would be using it to hire 400 workers in its retail stores starting next month. TIDAL New York, a flip-flop manufacturing company in New Rochelle, New York, will be making four new hires later this year using open hiring. CleanCraft, a cleaning company in Rochester, was one of the first companies to partner with Greyston’s COH in 2017.
“It’s a benefit for the business. It’s a benefit for the person that they’re hiring and ultimately, it’s a benefit for society,” said Kenner, of open hiring.
“I think COVID has highlighted all the gross inequities that we have in society with how we hire, how we train people, how we keep people and how we provide health care.”
A 2018 study published by the Prison Policy Initiative found that 27% of an estimated five million ex-offenders nationwide are unemployed, or about 1.35 million people. That same year, the overall national unemployment rate was around 4%.
The report also found that formerly incarcerated Black women faced the highest levels of unemployment (43%), whereas for white men, it was the lowest (18.4%).
For people looking to reenter society, structural barriers to securing employment and housing can create a cycle of incarceration and reincarceration, criminal justice reform advocates say.
Kenner views open hiring as a holistic approach that takes the resources that normally would be included to exclude people, whether it’s background checks or spending time on interviews, and investing in keeping them there and making sure that they’re successful.
“These businesses are now spending $4,000 to $4,500 per employee to keep people out,” he said. “We say, take those resources and bring people in and keep them there.”
Trish Patton, vice president for human resources at The Body Shop, said hearing about Greyston’s practices made sense to the company, which was crafting a new purpose statement last year.
“At the time, we had a lot of barriers to entry-level employment at The Body Shop in the U.S. We were doing drug screening, background checks, we had educational requirements,” she said. “We were doing the very typical interviewing and all of that.”
But when she broached the topic of adopting the Greyston hiring model with the company, people were initially skeptical.
“When I first started talking about this, they looked at me like I had three heads because they’re like, ‘Oh, we can’t take away background checks and drug screening. We are going to have criminals and then criminals on drugs working for us.’”
When Greyston came in for a presentation with senior executives in the company, things slowly started changing.
In the last quarter of 2019, The Body Shop hired 200 seasonal workers using open hiring.
The program was a success, with the monthly turnover decreasing by 60% for the labor-intensive job. This year, the company plans to hire 400 workers for its retail operations.
“It’s just a nontraditional way to hire people,” Patton said. “And then when you take it a step further, now they’re going to be customer-facing,” she said. “And so we’ve had to plan for several things like the fact that you might be hiring someone who’s not had a job in several years because they couldn’t find one. So how do we help get them acclimated back into the workforce as well? So there are a lot of things you have to think through.”
Tim Gibb, co-founder of TIDAL New York, a flip-flop manufacturing business in New Rochelle, said he has long been inspired by Greyston.
The company is looking to expand and open hiring will be a very key cornerstone of its expansion efforts, said Gibb. “There could be as many as four new hires before year end, and then there’ll be at least four to six in 2021.” For a company that prides itself on being community centric, “this is a way to make good on that promise and expand it,” said Gibb.
What is Greyston?
Greyston was founded in 1982 by Bernie Glassman, a Jewish aeronautical engineer turned Zen Buddhist monk turned social entrepreneur in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
“Bernie and the Zen Buddhist community in Riverdale were supporting themselves financially by baking cakes,” said Kenner. “It was a time of high unemployment and homelessness in the area and so Bernie would literally pull people off the streets and say, ‘Hey, you want to work? You can learn a skill and we’ll pay you.’ ”
The establishment moved to Yonkers in 1986 and hit its stride when Glassman met Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben & Jerry’s and quickly came up with a plan to work together.
Greyston would provide the chocolate cookies that would go into an ice cream sandwich.
“Unfortunately, the product did not survive the shipping process, so instead of having these chocolate cookies, it was just kind of a big slab of cookie stuff,” said Kenner. “And then someone said, you know, if we just put these things in chocolate ice cream … and that’s how chocolate fudge brownie was born.”
From there, the partnership has gone on to produce hits such as Half Baked, Brownie Batter Core, Justice ReMix’d (to bring attention to criminal justice reform) and Netflix & Chill’d.
How open hiring works
Open hiring does not mean a lack of standards, said Kenner.
At the foundation’s workforce development center, workers are trained to do a variety of jobs from security guard, training, building and construction trade safety, sanitization for the new COVID-19 environment and customer service.
Once hired, workers go through an apprenticeship program for six to nine months, depending on performance.
St. John’s Hospital, a large employer in Yonkers, has partnered with Greyston over past years for an assortment of positions, including security guard and landscaping.
Joe Furman, who was released from prison last year, was referred to Greyston Workforce Development by the Westchester Reentry Taskforce and his parole officer. Furman became an apprentice in the Greyston Rangers transitional employment program and now works with the Greyston Rangers and as a member of the groundskeeping team at St. John’s Hospital.
“When I was released, I was worried about survival. And how I would feed my family,” he said.
Furman said he looks at the two jobs he currently has as an opportunity to show how dedicated he is to work and turn his life around.
“I just know that I can’t fail,” he said.
“Folks here are held accountable in terms of attendance, to good manufacturing practices and all the standards that we have to adhere to,” Kenner said. “We are producing products for folks like Ben & Jerry’s and Whole Foods, so quality is very important.”
On average, Greyston workers could be making in the mid-to-high 40s, in terms of a salary, and some have risen into management.
TIDAL’s Gibb appreciates how the program can expedite hiring. “So what we like about it is, there just isn’t a need to go through the ZipRecruiters of the world for jobs that you can train people that just have a willingness to find gainful employment. There’s no reason why this should have anything but a positive, financial impact for you.”
People who have had brushes with the criminal justice system are no less qualified for jobs simply because of that experience, said Anthony Weiner.
Weiner is a believer in the type of second chances that open hiring affords. The former congressman and New York mayoral candidate, who spent time in federal prison for sexting with an underage girl, was recently hired by IceStone, which makes sustainable, recycled glass countertops and surfaces.
Weiner, who is currently CEO of the company, told The Journal News/lohud that it was the philosophy of the Brooklyn-based company that drew him to it.
He said the company, which hires formerly incarcerated as well as those with a checkered hiring history, is all about second chances, from its recycled products to its people.
“At IceStone, we don’t ask people whether they have a criminal background or not, because frankly we don’t think it has any real bearing on their ability to work,” he said. The company does not work with Greyston.
Weiner knows he is not the typical candidate for open hiring. He worked as a consultant for about a year before joining IceStone in May, and said because of his broad experiences working in government and as an elected official, he was able to tap in a large network willing to offer him opportunities.
But for people without that support, the obstacles can seem insurmountable.
“For the men and women who go through the criminal justice system, who pay their debts to society, the burden that they carry is still extreme when it comes to trying to return to the workforce, even for the most talented person,” Weiner said. “I’ve seen many men who are being told, you’ve paid your debt to society, but still continue to drag around the ball and chain of having a criminal record and the barrier that sets for them.”
When Alvin Wilson started working at Greyston, his grandmother told him that he reminded her of her son. Wilson’s father was a hard-working man who drove a truck and owned a barber shop.
“She said she was proud of me and that by me doing the right thing, I reminded her of my father,” he said. “This job has changed my life in a lot of ways. I mean, I now have a bank account. I got a car. People around me greet me with a smile. I always have a smile on my face when I think about my job.”