In West Philadelphia's Tyrone Peake, two national trends have converged.
The first: As baby boomers both arrange care for their elderly parents and grow older themselves, they are likely to need home health-care aides. Thus, domiciliary-care homes and long-term-care nursing facilities will need qualified workers. In Pennsylvania alone, it is projected that between 2012 and 2022, the direct-care workforce will need to grow by 33 percent.
The second: Nearly one in three adults in the United States, about 70 million people, have arrest or conviction records, according to an April report by the New York-based National Employment Law Project.
Yet in Pennsylvania alone, 200,000 people with clean records after 10-year-
old felony convictions are prohibited from working full time in nursing or group homes, known as "covered facilities" under existing law.
The Older Adult Protective Services Act imposes a complete ban on employment at "covered facilities" for anyone with a criminal record. Any conviction applies, and the ban extends for a lifetime.
Peake graduated from college last year at age 52. He and his daughter Ebony, 30, joke that they got their degrees the same year. In December, he earned his in behavioral health from Community College of Philadelphia. Peake works for Resources for Human Development Inc. (RHD), a local nonprofit that provides residential programs to individuals with mental illness, mental retardation, and chemical dependency.
With a quiet manner, Peake - a lifelong Phillies fan whose "favorite" was Shane Victorino - has drawn high praise from his bosses. They want to promote him to a full-time post with better pay and benefits.
When he was 18, Peake went riding with friends in a car he didn't know was stolen. He was sentenced to probation for a felony conviction. More than three decades later, he can't work full time in his chosen field because of his record from 1981.
Peake, RHD, a nurse, a cook and several others are suing to change this state of affairs.
"I work with men with developmental disorders. We help them learn how to live in the world again," he says. "I'd like to move up, but under current law that's impossible. And it's not just me. There are thousands of us out there. I'm a productive member of society. But when you run my background check, I'm treated as a criminal. I'm willing to make a stand to change this law."
Says his lawyer Tad LeVan: "RHD would love to put Mr. Peake in a full-time covered facility. They know his background. But they're prohibited from doing that.
"No one wants an ax murderer taking care of Grandma. But this is ridiculous. Let employers use their discretion," says LeVan.
He and a group including Community Legal Services filed suit on behalf of Peake and the others, suing the state and three of its departments and seeking to have the law declared unconstitutional.
Lifting the lifetime-
employment ban has support from nursing groups and retirement-home operators. Fear of recidivism is just that, the plaintiffs' experts argue.
Kiminori Nakamura, a criminology professor at the University of Maryland, notes that the recidivism risk declines over the years. He calls it the "redemption" phenomenon. The recidivism risk for those with a prior record actually falls below the risk of arrest for the general population - after four to seven years for violent offenders, four years for drug offenders, and three to four years for property offenders, based on one conviction, Nakamura noted in the lawsuit.
"If we win, no one has to hire anyone. Employers will still get their background checks. But it will get rid of this ban," LeVan says.
They filed suit last month against the state and the Departments of Aging, Health, and Human Services in Commonwealth Court.
Peake is joined in the suit by Joan Grey, 60, a licensed nurse-practitioner. She worked at St. John Neumann nursing home, Philadelphia State Hospital, and several nursing agencies over the last 20 years. But under the law, she is barred from working in some facilities in the health-care field full time because of a conviction.
Charles Ford, 55, worked as a chef at Le Bec-Fin for 13 years. After the restaurant closed, he began working at the nonprofit Project HOME and Gaudenzia as a cook. He was recently denied a promotion and transfer because of a three-decades-old conviction.
Desmond Lowe, 48, worked preparing food for office staff at Prudential Life Insurance. He borrowed a car to get to work, not realizing it was stolen, and was pulled over. He served two years' probation and has not been convicted of any crime since. After working at a Days Inn hotel, Willow Grove Park mall, and Walmart, he was denied a dishwashing and food-prep job at a nursing home in Doylestown because of a 15-year old record.
Dennis Roberts, corporate associate director at RHD, oversees a $250 million budget.
"In 2014 alone, RHD was barred from hiring 52 qualified candidates as permanent hires because of the act's lifetime employment ban," Roberts says. He wants Tyrone Peake, but can't promote him.
Peake has even worked for the U.S. Postal Service, a job he got after a background check going back only 10 years.
Getting rid of the lifetime ban in the state law "could help thousands," says Peake.