KANSAS CITY — Jobs are scarce out there, no matter how impressive the resume.
If that resume listed time in a state penitentiary, imagine just how much more scarce.
Nearly 700,000 people are released from federal and state prisons to their communities each year, about 25,000 between Missouri and Kansas.
Where do they go?
Some end up with a job and pick up a rag at the bright orange and blue All Seasons Car Wash.
It's one of the grittier tales of good will toward men — as practiced by Gene Krahenbuhl, owner of that car wash.
Take Nick (no last name, he asked, no need to embarrass family). He’s no saint. Arrests have plucked him off the streets seven times for driving while intoxicated. He thinks himself lucky his actions haven’t killed anyone.
Right now he’s trying to kick the booze and become a productive citizen by earning a living, paying taxes, staying out of trouble. He knows job rejection well. Would-be employers have drawn back in their chair, frowned and stopped listening when they saw his check mark in the “yes” box next to: Have you ever been convicted of a felony?
Krahenbuhl is the only one who would hire him.
For 10 years Krahenbuhl has been hiring felons as young as 18 and as old as 60 and convicted of things including writing bad checks, robbery, sex offenses and assault. No murderers though, that he knows of. But Krahenbuhl doesn’t ask for details. He does know that not all his employees have served time in prison, and a few are just down-on-their-luck homeless.
“I don’t really care. I’m not judging. It has become very evident to me that these people just need a chance,” said the 47-year-old Raymore man.
Most employers don’t want to hire ex-cons, even with government incentives such as tax breaks.
“There is a general feeling of risk among most businesses about hiring someone who has been convicted of a felony crime,” said Bill Miskell at the Kansas Probation and Parole Office. Then, too, a lot of jobs are off-limits to anyone with a criminal record. For example, someone convicted of embezzling can’t work as a bookkeeper or in a bank.
On the other hand, said Julie Kempker, re-entry manager for the Missouri Department of Corrections, “There are people in prison who have talent like you wouldn’t believe.”
Two-thirds of released prisoners are arrested again within three years, and about half return to prison, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Much of the time those who end up back in prison had been unemployed,” Miskell said.
The prison revolving door is expensive for taxpayers, Kempker said.
“We have solid data that says that those who leave prison and maintain employment are less likely to return to prison,” she said. “And the data says that when they are out and working they are not committing crime.”
Eighty percent of inmates are nonviolent, she noted. “People watch too much television. Most of the people in the prison system are not Hannibal Lecter.”
Krahenbuhl believes in second chances, but he has been known to give third — even fourth — chances to the 20 or so felons he employs.
He doesn’t accept government incentives for his hires, and he acknowledges his employees’ paychecks are small (just minimum wage). But he’s not getting rich, either, he said.
“Owning a business is not just about making money. It is also about giving back to the community.”
Washing cars isn’t easy work, Krahenbuhl said, especially in winter, the best season for the business. When temperatures drop below freezing, “people don’t want to get out in the cold to wash their car. They bring it to us.”
Former convicts come and go fairly regularly at the car wash, but a few guys have been with Krahenbuhl consistently for a couple of years and others have worked there off and on for as long as he has owned the place.
All Seasons Car Wash is a starting point: money for rent, food and confidence in one’s ability to go straight.
“I encourage them that if they can get a better job, they should go after it,” Krahenbuhl said.
Workers are taught basic job ethic — show up on time, be courteous to customers and don’t goof off on the clock. A mutual trust is central to employment at the car wash, he said.
No, he doesn’t expect his employees won’t try to get away with some stuff, even steal from him. It has happened — double swiping credit cards and pinching from the cash drawer or pocketing tips that are supposed to be divided among the crew.
Stealing is not necessarily grounds for dismissal. But when caught, “and we always catch them,” Krahenbuhl expects the offender to fess up.
Stealing and then lying about it, now that’s cause for firing, he said.
Those who don’t make it, he noted, “are usually the ones who can’t kick their addiction to drugs or alcohol.
“Nick is a good guy. If he can quit the drinking, he could be a manager here,” Krahenbuhl said.
At 44, Nick is living with his parents in Kansas City for now. But he remembers sleeping nights, before the car wash, out in the cold. He is saving his money to rent his own place.
“If it wouldn’t have been for these guys here at the car wash, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Nick said. “Working here has kept me off the street.”