Lessons learned: Hiring ex-offenders pays off, but the workers need help

ShopRite employee LaShawna Bennett (right) helps bag items with Shakiel Taylor at ShopRite’s Roxborough store last week. Bennett and Taylor were both enrolled in a program that guaranteed jobs to ex-offenders who completed cashier training.

One in an occasional series, part of a collaborative news project about the challenges and solutions of prison reentry in Philadelphia.

In despair, sitting at her kitchen table in Chester, Dayna Chandler, 33, began this calculation: Maybe her three children would be better off if she were dead. A former bank teller, she had a criminal conviction for theft, had been in prison, and hadn’t been able to keep a job for four years, not with that record, even though it was only a misdemeanor.

She couldn’t support her children — maybe someone else could. Her physical health was failing, but her heart was also broken, if that counts.

By a miracle, she learned that Uplift Solutions was offering cashier training to ex-offenders, guaranteeing a job at ShopRite for those who passed a six-week course. She called. By a second miracle, the program accepted her. For six weeks last summer, she commuted two hours each way, by bus, between Chester and the training, at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, located at the opposite end of Philadelphia.

“This program has changed my life,” Chandler said. Since she started as a cashier at the Island Avenue ShopRite, she’s earned a sizable raise and a promotion. “My life has done a 180-degree turn.”

Good for Chandler, and for LaShawna Bennett, another graduate now being groomed to be an assistant night manager at ShopRite.

As good as it is for them, it’s also good for the 13 ShopRite and Fresh Grocer stores run by Brown’s Super Stores Inc., led by chief executive Jeffrey Brown and his wife, Sandy. In a tightening labor market, the New Jersey-based chain with stores in Philadelphia and its suburbs has tapped into a shunned labor pool with excellent results, particularly in retailing, where turnover can run as high as 100 percent a year.

Every time supervisors called Bennett, 41, of North Philadelphia, into the management office at Brown’s Roxborough ShopRite, “I’m in there bawling my eyes out,” she said. Not because she was being fired or disciplined, but because the former drug dealer, who spent three years in state prison, is now getting raises, praises, and promotions.

“They trust me, and that’s just an awesome feeling,” said Bennett, who started as a cashier in July. “My customers rely on me. It’s like I have a purpose in life.”

Bennett and 21 Uplift graduates were hired between July 9 and July 15. Fourteen, or 67 percent, are still employed. That same week, ShopRite hired a larger group of employees. Of those, just over one in three is still working.

Chandler’s class of 26 started working the week of Aug. 20. Three months later, 20, or 77 percent, remain; only four in 10 of the other employees hired that week are still on the job. A third Uplift class is still on probation in the stores. The fourth will graduate in December.

For every employee who leaves within the first few months, ShopRite loses at least $1,000, estimated John Vining, who heads human resources for Brown’s. Besides recruitment and orientation, the company pays employees while they are training. It takes months for cashiers to be fully productive.

The six-week Uplift program, funded with philanthropic and government training dollars, includes three weeks of cashier training, mimicking the classroom training ShopRite would have funded. Uplift also recruits, saving ShopRite that expense.

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
ShopRite employee LaShawna Bennett shares a laugh earlier this month with John Vining, director of human resources for Brown’s Super Stores Inc. at the Roxborough ShopRite.

But the secret sauce, as Vining put it, is Uplift’s social worker, Lauren Ruday.

Nowhere in ShopRite’s corporate structure is there a place, at least not now, for someone whose responsibility includes finding homes for homeless ex-offenders, talking to probation officers, and telephoning graduates, settling small issues that could have led to people quitting or being fired.

“Honestly, that’s probably the most impactful thing for us,” Vining said.

He wishes all hires could have Uplift’s training and support. But as employer, ShopRite has also benefited. Because it tracks Uplift retention, ShopRite now examines all retention, a new initiative. Where would extra attention help reduce turnover? Uplift staffers, talking to graduates, have alerted Vining to orientation and training miscues. Vining said he’s already thinking about what ShopRite could imitate if Uplift ends.

People out of prison “feel rejected and for good reason, because they have been rejected,” Ruday said. When anxiety is removed, they blossom, she said: Relief is so intense, it builds loyalty and helps graduates cope with part-time hours and low starting pay, about $8 an hour.

“One woman told me she’d see people going to work clutching their coffee. She envied them. Now, she’s holding her coffee and getting on the subway,” Ruday said. “That builds self-confidence.”

It’s not only a financial calculation,Vining said: “Many of them are quickly recognized as willing to learn, willing to work hard, and they are moving ahead.”

Chandler believes that at some point, someone may try to recruit her away from Jeff Brown and ShopRite.

“I will never leave him,” she said. “They promoted me, and they uplifted me, and I’m staying put where I am.”

About This Project:

The Inquirer is one of 15 news organizations in the Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative, a solutions-oriented focus on issues facing people coming out of prison. The piece is part of an occasional series — across the region and across platforms — on the challenges of reentry and what can be done about them.
To read our collective work, and read more about the project:  https://thereentryproject.org/