Victoria Brewster, MSW

Victoria Brewster, MSW

Social Justice Solutions | Staff Writer
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MSW Level Graduate Seeking Employment: Difficulty Due to Felony Conviction

One of the premises of  SJS, is writing on and sharing issues that require advocacy, raising awareness of issues and supporting fellow social workers. We received a request through our Facebook page from a social worker who was having difficulty in obtaining employment due to a past felony conviction. Below is her story.

Why did I choose Social Work?

I have always worked in the human service field. I found that work to be very rewarding and I enjoyed it. I would always get frustrated with all the hoops people had to jump through to get any kind of assistance. I was the one who questioned certain policies and procedures. I always wanted to do more to help people. I became interested in criminal justice when I tried to help a gentleman get a job and at every turn he was turned down. As a society, we expect people to support themselves yet we do little to help them. I found this to be very discouraging. What I have come to realize is a criminal record with a felony conviction over shadows an established career and education.

While in graduate school we had to choose a concentration, the choices were Interdisciplinary Health or Family and Community. I chose Family and Community because I felt that social work has moved away from the communities and focuses more on mental health. I want to be a social worker in the community that addresses the issues of the community. Similar to Jane Adams work as she was a pioneer in the field of social work as a community organizer and an activist for change. There is such a push for mental health that we tend to over- look the roots of our profession. We need more social workers in the community on the front lines.

It is through resiliency that I have managed to endure hardships, and to sustain a life that has meaning. Having to cope with this difficult event did create stress, and successfully working through this has increased my confidence. I am determined and confident that I will be returning to the human services field as a social worker.  My passion is helping people and evoking change.

Felony Conviction: Describe in more Detail:

The charges stemmed from unemployment. In 2005 I lost my job as an administrator of an adult home due to it closing. I then fell back on my commercial drivers licence (CDL). I began driving a school bus and worked about 20-25 hours a week. Each week when I reported 3 days of work, I figured it went by my previous job of 40 hours a week. Well this was wrong. If I worked 1 hour that counted as a full day of work, so actually I was not entitled to any benefits. In 2007, I was charged with offering a false instrument for filing, falsifying a business record and grand larceny. Prior to being sentenced I paid back all the money owed. When I was sentenced, I had to do 4 months of weekends in jail and 5 years of probation, which I was released from early. Since the conviction, the only job I have been able to get is cleaning vacation rentals.

I do not understand how 1 hour can count as a full day of work, but in New York state it does. So if I worked 1 hour for 5 days, I would not be eligible for unemployment that week. I had a court appointed attorney. I am not sure what the rationale was for the sentencing as I paid back all the money I earned through UI. The District Attorney said if I did not pay the money, he was going to ask for a prison term of 3-7 years.

According to the 2013 NYS Unemployment Insurance guidelines:

Q: What does the Department of Labor consider work?

A: We consider you employed on any day when you perform any services, whether this work is:

  • An hour or less in self-employment
  • On a free-lance basis or
  • For someone else

You must report any activity that brings in or may bring in income at any time.

If you work while receiving benefits and do not report it (even if it is part-time work) you may be committing fraud. You must report all full-time and part-time work to the Labor Department. If you do not report the work, you risk criminal penalties.

A: If you work less than four days in a week and earn $405 (gross wages) or less, you may receive partial benefits.

You are considered employed on any day when you perform any services – even an hour or less –

What I have Done to Rectify my Current Situation:

I recently tried a re-entry program in NY state. It was with a non-profit agency which has a contract with the NYS Division of Parole. Because they contract with them, the division of Parole has the final say on who the agency hires for the program. As I think back on the last interview, I was told that as long as parole and the supervisor approved me, they wanted to hire me. When asked if I ever had a substance abuse problem I said no and in fact I have never tried any drugs. The question had to be asked as the program enforces abstinence. I would think every program would enforce that. I was not accepted into the re-entry program even though I shared and explained my certificate of relief.

I wish every profession embraced the NASW Code of Ethics and core values, what a wonderful world this would be. Again, just another reason social workers need to be out in the communities addressing social issues and addressing social issues in the code of Ethics under Social Workers Ethical Responsibilities to the broader society. I really feel that we are falling short in this area.

In about 4 weeks when my job ends, I will be eligible for unemployment, but because I am working with a friend on starting a re-entry program, I do not qualify. I do not get it. There is something wrong here and it frustrates me. It seems as if the “system” does not want individuals to better themselves.

When I interview for any job, I am very honest about the criminal record. In fact, I attach a copy of the certificate of relief to the application. During the interview when it has been discussed I share that the charges stem from unemployment. I generally hear the interviewer will have to look into it to see if I can be hired. I explain what the certificate of relief is for and this seems to fall on deaf ears.

It is unfortunate that employers are not willing to look past this felony conviction considering that a certificate of relief has been obtained and Ms. Whyte paid back to NY state all of the money she was paid through unemployment. What do others think?

Written by Victoria Brewster, MSW
Staff Writer

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