After waking up around 6 a.m. on a recent Friday for the first of his five daily prayers, John Wendell got ready for another day of job hunting.
Wendell, 32, lives at his mom’s apartment in Harlem and usually searches for work nearby, but on this day he was heading downtown to inquire about openings at Blue Smoke, Danny Meyer’s upscale barbeque joint. He scrambled to come up with train fare, which included a contribution from his mother, and arrived at the Flatiron district eatery shortly after 10.
“I’m always nervous,” he said before entering the nearly empty restaurant. “Uncertainty — you never really know what’s going on. The hardest part is just getting started.”
Wendell was released from the medium-security Gouverneur Correctional Facility, in upstate New York near the Canadian border, on Aug. 21 after serving four years for serial burglary. He moved back to his mother’s apartment, and — after recovering from a car crash that landed him in the hospital only three days after his release — began looking for work.
But the job market is bleak — particularly for former prisoners.
Tall and solidly built with a flowing black beard and a colorful kufi cap covering his shaved head, Wendell flashed a megawatt smile as he strode into the restaurant through a side door. He asked the first worker he saw about job openings and was promptly redirected to the front of the house, where a young employee handed him a card and politely instructed him to apply online. The entire visit lasted less than five minutes.
“I kind of was expecting more, but I had expected that something like this would happen as well, so I’m kind of not disappointed,” Wendell said after leaving. “At least I pushed forward.”
While the New York State unemployment rate hovers around 9 percent, among the worst in the country, for people such as Wendell — on parole and released from prison within the last six months — the rate is more like 70 percent, said Glenn Martin of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that works to help former prisoners with re-entry.
In part, the high figure stems from simple demographics: As a segment of the population, ex-prisoners are among the least educated and least likely to have previous work experience. But discrimination also plays a role. In a large-scale 2004 Princeton University field experiment in which young men, some with criminal records and some without, were provided manufactured resumes and instructed to apply for actual New York City low-wage jobs, a criminal record was found to reduce the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent. The crippling effect of a record was much worse for black applicants than white.
That this prejudice occurred in New York City — where both state and city law prohibit employment discrimination based on criminal background — was particularly egregious, Martin said.
“Clearly, because of stigma, employees still are not inclined to hire people with a criminal record,” he said.
After the study’s publication in 2009, Martin said Mayor Michael Bloomberg took steps to reduce hiring discrimination, including signing an executive order prohibiting city agencies from asking about an applicant’s criminal history before or during the first interview. (Public safety jobs are exempt.)
“The idea is to bring everyone up to the starting line,” Martin said.
But while Martin has noticed that it’s become slightly easier to place clients in jobs since the laws have passed, a still-depressed economy means prospects for the newly released remain dim. Competition is often fierce even for entry-level positions, and those with records often lose out to more qualified candidates who are also free of the stigma of a criminal background.
Wendell knows all about the gloomy job market, the discrimination, the label he’ll always carry. “It’s the Serengeti,” he said of the current job climate. “You have to have a certain amount of hunger inside of you to go ahead and find employment.”
Monday through Sunday, usually starting at 8 a.m. on weekdays, Wendell posts resumes, makes phone calls, checks emails. Several times a week he visits re-entry assistance agencies such as Exodus Transitional Community or Ready, Willing and Able for help with everything from job placement to resumes to government aid like food stamps and housing.
And even though most openings are listed online, he still regularly hits the pavement, often walking long distances only to be told to apply online again.
“Right now I’m willing to take almost anything,” he said.
Rafael Romero, one of Wendell’s case managers at Exodus, applauded his client’s persistence. Wendell is realistic, he said, but also exceptionally determined and upbeat, which is why Romero is optimistic about Wendell’s job prospects.
“With his attitude, it’s only a matter of time,” he said.
Before his conviction, Wendell, who graduated from high school and later studied a year at ITT Tech, held a variety of jobs: deliveryman; bouncer; loan officer. He also worked as a mechanical engineer in the Navy for a year and a half before receiving an other-than-honorable discharge for marijuana use.
Wendell had always walked the line between straight and crooked, he said: Growing up he had one mind to be a valedictorian and another to be a hoodlum, as he put it, with a taste for big cars, money and women. His first felony charge came at 19 when he was caught joyriding, although the charge was eventually dropped.
After the Navy he remained in southern California for a while and mostly stayed out of trouble until he returned to Harlem in 2008, where he began selling drugs and robbing local businesses. When his mother kicked him out of her house, he spent months on the streets, sleeping on subway trains at night.
But time in prison and his conversion to Islam helped him find clarity, Wendell said.
Now, after he finds a job, he wants to enroll in college and become a counselor. He’s already helping other clients at Exodus.
On his way home from Blue Smoke, he popped into the East Harlem organization for a meeting and was pulled aside to share his experience with a newly released group of clients. His deep voice soaring, Wendell talked about the way he tried to soak up knowledge, what his own job search had been like, how the new arrivals should take the class seriously.
But mostly, he told the dozen or so future job seekers hanging on his every word not to take no for an answer.
“Don’t get caught up in being black or Latino or whatever the case may be and thinking that somebody’s not going to give you the chance,” he said. “That shouldn’t be the reason why you allow yourself to stop going forward.”
“There’s always going to be a wall — that background check or that criminal history,” he said. “But you can scale that wall. You can knock that wall down.”
Update: November 8
John Wendell began work earlier this week as a dishwasher at the soon-to-open Tommy Bahama restaurant and retail store on Fifth Avenue and East 45th Street. Executive chef Jason Krantz read about his job search here and, after a phone call and a 45-minute in-person interview, offered Wendell a full-time position. “He’s a very nice guy,” he said. “I hired him on the spot.”
For his part, Wendell was thrilled. “I was amazed to get that phone call,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”