Hoping for a Second Chance

Two years ago, a variety show was held in Indiana that featured comedians, spoken-word performances and singers described as “every bit as good as the performers on American Idol.” The twist? All of the performers were inmates at the state’s Putnamville Correctional Facility.

The show—The Redemption Project: Inmates Got Talent—was the brainchild of Johnny Collins, a comedian and documentary filmmaker who was interested in helping prisoners discover their inner talents and, in the process, gain the confidence necessary for finding gainful employment upon their release.

“I’m not trying to justify what these guys did to get put in prison, but most of them feel like they’ve been forgotten, that they’ve been discarded, and it stays with them when they get out,” says Collins, who says he was inspired to start the project in part through his interaction with “Big Mike” Mitchell, an ex-convict who’d gone on to forge a successful career as a comedian and comedy producer.

Approximately 100 inmates auditioned for the show, with 15 ultimately selected to perform a series of shows before an audience of inmates and prison employees, says Collins.

“Some of the inmate comedians were so good, I could easily see them having their own shows on Comedy Central,” he says.

The shows were taped as part of a documentary film that Collins is currently seeking a distributor for. He hopes to expand the talent-show concept to other prisons throughout the country, and is in discussion with other state corrections departments about it.

Ultimately, however, he wants the nation’s employers to take notice.

“Let’s face it, in this economy it’s tough to get jobs and it’s really tough when you’ve got a prison record—many ex-cons end up feeling beat down and discouraged and wind up back in prison,” he says. “It’s important for companies to see that they deserve a second chance—if we can recycle paper bags, why can’t we recycle people?”

No End in Sight

Despite some positive signs in the economy, a just released study, No End in Sight: The Agony of Prolonged Unemployment, by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University confirms that the vast majority of those unemployed continue to struggle to find work.

In August 2009, the center conducted a survey of 1,202 men and women who had been unemployed at some point in the previous 12 months. Then, in March 2010, it followed up with 908 of them. Researchers found that just one in five (21 percent) of those looking for jobs in August of last year had found it by March of this year. Fully two-thirds (67 percent) remained unemployed and looking, with the remaining 12 percent having left the labor market.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the youngest of the group had the easiest time finding new work, while the oldest had the least success—leading some respondents to offer comments such as “age discrimination is alive and well” … and older workers are “considered expendable.”

The study also found that many of those who were able to find work had to settle for something less than what they had before, with just over half of them reporting a pay cut from their prior job and about one-quarter saying they took a significant salary hit.

Many predicted jobs would be slow to return. But the Rutgers study suggests that slow might be an understatement. Notwithstanding definite signs of economic improvement,   companies continue to be extremely cautious when it comes to adding to their ranks. Let’s hope, were the center to do a further follow-up with this group later this year, it might have better news to report.

Biometric Brouhaha Boiling On

Sentiments from either side of the proposed biometric national ID card debate are getting more and more heated, as this recent story from the Society for Human Resource Management underscores.

Aside from the politics involved in the idea of including the card in an immigration-reform bill, HR professionals are also “casting a wary eye,” according to the story. The ACLU predicts employers could pay as much as $1.2 billion to issue the cards and workers would have to pay $105 to $139 eachto obtain them. Expanded to the entire U.S. workforce, the program could translate to a cost of $285 billion.

ACLU Legislative Counsel Christopher Calabrese tells SHRM the bureaucracy behind such a program “would involve new government offices across the country, tens of thousands of new federal employees and the construction of huge new information-technology systems.”

Other opponents predict long document-presentation lines, inevitable information errors and bureaucratic red tape. Employers “would have to purchase expensive biometric readers, train HR workers to be immigration agents and endure delays in their workforce,” Calabrese says.

But nothing else could be as fraud-proof and sure to enhance homeland security and reduce the number of illegal immigrants living and working here, card proponents say.

My prediction: This cauldron has a heckuva lot more cooking time ahead.

Get Your Wellness Kicks on Route 66

Hey, yet another wellness initiative — this one from a company called Health Enhancement Systems; and this time, on a highway I traveled as a Southern California kid and miss to this day. Have long been yearning a return for a road trip; never really considered walking it. Wonder, though, as these wellness programs take employees further and further away from their work for longer and longer periods, if some HR leaders aren’t getting just a little more apprehensive about looking into them. Just wondering.

Remembering the Fallen

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis honored today — Workers Memorial Day — with a reference to Mother Jones (the woman and labor organizer, not the magazine) by quoting her: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

While government data shows that fatal workplace injuries (PDF) have decreased each year since 1992 and other workplace nonfatal injuries and illnesses (PDF) have done the same since 2003, even one injury is too many.

Solis notes that this has been a “tragic month for the nation’s working families,” citing the oil rig workers in Louisiana, the branch Mine workers in West Virginia and victims of the refinery fire in Washington.

“More than 4.6 million workers suffer serious injuries each year,” according to her statement. “And, every day across America, more than 14 men and women lose their lives in preventable workplace incidents. That’s nearly 100 preventable deaths per week!”

HR leaders should already be aware that OSHA has hired — and plans to hire even more — enforcement agents, but besides preparing for stepped up enforcement, companies need to review their own safety programs. A recent story on HREOnline looks at some of the inadvertent reasons workplace safety programs don’t play out in reality as they do on the drawing board. 

There may be some heartless and ruthless employers out there, but I would guess that number is pretty small.
While the overwhelming majority of employers may look askance at some of the rules, regulations and opinions coming from the DOL, I would guess nearly all agree with Solis’ statement today: “No one — regardless of his or her occupation — should have to be injured or killed to earn a paycheck.”

Helping Employers Improve Kids’ Mental Health

It’s nice to see the National Business Group on Health continuing to take on workplace challenges that matter with solutions that can make a difference.

Its latest release announcing a new publication designed to help employers improve their child and adolescent behavioral services really caught my eye.

Personally, I know of several families touched by a child in need of help. I also know of several tragedies involving young people who didn’t get the help they needed fast enough. And I also know how a parent’s concern over such a child or adolescent can be so distracting at work it becomes debilitating — so of course, this new guide can only help employers.

 I’d venture to guess that child and adolescent mental-health issues touch most all of us in some way. Kudos to NBGH!!

The Essential Nature of HR

HR may not be essential in some small companies as its transactional work can be done by other managers, but it is esential in the way it can add “considerable value” to an enterprise, suggests an essay, “Combatting Skepticism Towards HR,” in the Cornell HR Review.

The author, a student pursuing a master’s in industrial and labor relations and a founding member of the Review, compares HR to marketing — each function is “indisputably essential for the firm to stay afloat amid the competition over time.”

And sometimes, the value of HR can be seen, writes Joshua D. Rosenberg-Daneri, in what is not occuring within the business, instead of what is.

Think: unions.

Impact of Healthcare Reform Continuing to be Revealed

 There’s more disconcerting news about the historic healthcare reform bill — all being released today.

Along with a study by the Congressional Budget Office that about four million middle-class Americans will pay higher healthcare costs because of the reform and another study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concluding that the legislation will increase healthcare costs — not reduce them — comes a poll of healthcare executives by AMN Healthcare finding that nearly three-quarters of them (72 percent) were either somewhat concerned or very concerned the new law would have a negative impact on their facilities.

In addition, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) say the reform will have a somewhat or very detrimental effect on the quality of care their facilities are able to provide.

Only about one in five of those surveyed (22 percent) were greatly or moderately pleased by the passage of healthcare reform, while about the same number (23 percent) said reform will have a somewhat beneficial or very beneficial effect on the quality of care their facilities are able to provide patients.

But it may impact staffing — which could be both good for the economy in general, while bad for the executives, who already have problems finding some healthcare professionals, especially nurses.

Six in 10 (62 percent) executives said healthcare reform will cause them to add more physicians, 56 percent said reform will cause them to add more nurses, and 56 percent said healthcare reform will drive them to add more allied healthcare professionals.

Labor Professor Cletus Daniel Dies

Back in the day, labor relations was a crucial competency in organizations, with HR often subordinate. But, while organizations remain wary of unions, the movement’s influence today is mostly centered in public government.

One of those who chronicled the movement was Cletus E. Daniel, professor of American labor history at the Cornell University ILR School, who died on April 18.

Among his books were Bitter Harvest: A History of California Farmworkers, 1870-1941, The ACLU and the Wagner Act: An Inquiry into the Depression-Era Crisis of American Liberalism, and Culture of Misfortune: An Interpretive History of Textile Unionism in the United States.

Daniel, 66,  joined the ILR School faculty in 1973. He received the ILR Excellence in Teaching Award in 1979 and 1982 and the University Paramount Professor for Teaching Excellence in 1992. Since 1989, Daniel had served as director of the school’s Off-Campus Credit Programs.

Kathleen Asser Weslock, a Cornell graduate and chief human resource officer for SunGard Data Systems, noted that “Clete had been a professor of mine over 20 years ago; we renewed our friendship recently through the Cornell intern program.”

With even public-sector unions under growing pressure from unhappy taxpayers, it will be interesting to see whether labor relations will remain on the curriculum 20 years from now.