The last few years of my grandmother’s life, she slept with her cosmetics bag under her pillow. She didn’t do this because she was vain—though she was—but because she was convinced that the people at her nursing home stole. I didn’t believe her at first, but several missing bottles of prized Lubriderm lotion later and after regular complaints from my mother about the vast quantities of size-16 t-shirts and underwear she had to purchase, I had to admit my grandmother’s allegations were true.
Still, I don't think my grandmother would have used the common theft at her home as a reason to bar people with criminal convictions from working there—especially given that a good part of the stealing seemed to be committed by the residents themselves. But in a recent New York Times article, "Study Finds Criminal Pasts of Nursing Home Workers," reporter Robert Pear simply assumes that people with convictions should not be offered a chance to earn a living at these institutions. Pear failed, however, to supply any evidence that employing them has caused any problems in nursing homes.
According to the article, most nursing homes employ one or more persons with criminal convictions. It quotes several people suggesting that their presence at nursing homes is dangerous, yet offers no data that people with convictions are actually more likely to abuse or steal from residents. Nor did the article talk to anyone with the view that gainful employment at nursing homes might actually be a positive way to reintegrate formerly incarcerated people into our communities.
The elderly can be extremely vulnerable, and we need to take great care who we hire to work with them. But people trying to make something of themselves shouldn’t be banned from working because of their past. In my grandmother’s nursing home in a small New Mexico town, I don’t know if there were any staff with convictions, but I’m positive there were residents who had spent time in la pinta, as we say there. I’m even more certain that many had relatives with criminal convictions. And I have no doubt that Grandma Eloisa would have been extremely pleased if her home had hired my cousin—who had paid his debt to society—when he most desperately needed a job.
This is why the Open Society Foundations fund several organizations that work to reduce employment discrimination against people who have been convicted of a crime. Our grantee the Center for Employment Opportunities just this week blogged about the importance of employment reentry strategies—not only for people with criminal convictions, but for our society as a whole.