Culinary Creations Catering participants with a criminal record face significant barriers to finding employment Print
Around the Diocese
Written by Laura Green, For the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, Mar. 19, 2020 -- 12:00 AM


Culinary Creations trainee
Travis and another trainee work in the Culinary Creations Catering kitchen at the Catholic Multicultural Center in Madison. (Contributed photo)

MADISON -- Culinary Creations Catering (CCC) serves individuals facing barriers to employment and offers them the tools they need to build a brighter future and success in the workplace.

These barriers can be anything from housing instability, physical or mental health issues, lack of meaningful educational or career opportunities, or even racial discrimination (one recent study in Milwaukee found that black men received significantly fewer interview callbacks than white men, even though the study subjects had equal qualifications).

Past criminal record

Here we explore one of these barriers, which is reported by one-third of Culinary Creations participants: a past criminal record.

Studies have shown that unemployment is higher for individuals with a criminal record, and that this challenge disproportionately impacts African-American job applicants. Racial discrimination and harsh judgement on one's past record interplay to create significant barriers for some job seekers.

Sharina recently applied to the Catholic Multicultural Center's (CMC) Culinary Creations Catering food service job training enterprise. She is enthusiastic, charismatic, and eager to brush up on her culinary knowledge so that one day, she can establish her own restaurant.

Sharina, who asked that her name be changed to remain anonymous, has been turned down from employment four to five times because she has a criminal record. At one job, she even began working, but when her background check came back, she was told she was not eligible to continue working.

"It crushes your spirit. Makes you depressed," said Sharina. "You need two jobs to get by and live comfortably these days, especially as I support my three kids, yet I couldn't even get one job."

Suffered harassment

At a previous job, Sharina suffered harassment from a co-worker. Management failed to respond to her complaints. One day the co-worker pulled a knife on her. Sharina defended herself, was arrested, and plead guilty to battery.

This record, Sharina says, haunts her to this day. She partially blames management for this incident, saying she feels discriminated against because management failed to take her complaints seriously. The employee who attacked Sharina didn't face any consequences from management, that is until two weeks later when the co-worker pulled a knife on the manager. Then the worker was fired.

"I am not a violent person, but I am being judged and characterized by the criminal justice system. I'm being judged by every place I apply. They don't care about your experience or your training," said Sharina, expressing the frustration that she now has any time she searches for a job.

Record makes it hard to find job

Travis recently joined Culinary Creations Catering after spending several years in and out of the criminal justice system. Though being white means he doesn't face the racial discrimination his African-American counterparts often face, his record has also made it hard for him to find a job. "A lot of times you don't even get an interview," said Travis, explaining what it's like to look for a job with a felony on his record.

Not being able to get a job, said Travis, creates a vicious cycle: you come out of prison, can't find work, have trouble filling your time, and it becomes real easy to fall back into the habits that landed you in prison in the first place.

"When you get out, if you have nothing to do, you do stupid things," he said. For him, those "stupid things" were a drug addiction and eventually burglary, which led him to spend time in and out of prison. "I eventually learned to keep myself occupied and keep those negative thoughts away," said Travis, explaining how he worked to overcome his past mistakes and stay out of the criminal justice system.

Last year Travis was released from prison for the last time, jobless and homeless but ready to make a fresh start in life. His brother invited him to move to Madison and stay with him until he could get back on his feet. When he was in prison, Travis had obtained a job working in the prison kitchen. There he realized that working in the culinary field was what he wanted to do with his life.

Culinary Creations Catering

However, finding work after being released from prison was difficult with his record. For a long time, the only jobs he could get was through different temp agencies. One day this changed after he learned about Culinary Creations Catering.

"I came here [to Culinary Creations] to further my education in the career I have chosen," said Travis. Travis fully completed the job skills and culinary training offered by CCC. He received compliments from his supervisors for being a hard worker