Religious coalition calls on Tampa City Council to reduce unemployment

04/24/12 Janelle Irwin
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Members of a religious political action group in Hillsborough County called on Tampa City Council members Monday night to introduce ordinances that would boost employment rates in the area. The Hillsborough Organization for Prosperity and Equality (HOPE) proposed two measures for council members to consider at the Mount Calvary Seventh Day Adventist Church in Tampa. One would require employers to delay background checks until after an interview. After seeing dozens of hands raise from the crowded sanctuary indicating their unemployment status, council member Frank Reddick supported both proposals.

“I stand here embarrassed as an elected official to see that many people raise their hand about unemployment. I also stand here embarrassed that when 57,000 people that are ex-inmates that arrive back in Hillsborough County. That’s shameful. I also feel embarrassed because when I look around my district and two of the zip codes that you mention in this ordinance consist of my district. I’m embarrassed.”

That ordinance also received support from council members Lisa Montelione and Harry Cohen, the other two members in attendance. According to HOPE board members, the measure would discourage recidivism and bolster the long-struggling employment rate in the county. Velma Jenkins Doyle was charged with a felony more than three decades ago, but still has that record haunting her job searches.

“And even though my debt to society has been paid and adjudication was withheld, through the years I’ve often found myself on the rejection end of employability, including some of the most medial jobs.”

Bill Tone also was convicted of a crime as a young adult. But in his case, he was able to find a job. Eight years after his arrest, Tone was offered a job with a company. When they found out about his record, his job offer was rescinded. But he said he was lucky enough to be able to talk his way back into his position.

“The point is, my employer ran the check after he offered me the job and I was blessed to be able to explain my record in person. Today, ex-offenders rarely have the opportunity to explain their record and getting hired is next to impossible.”

That ordinance would also apply to running credit checks on applicants. On that point, council member Cohen had no problem supporting.

“I really find myself asking why a credit check is necessary at all.”

Another ordinance proposed by HOPE would require local companies who receive tax-dollars by way of contracts or incentives to consider unemployed local applicants first. Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen said he might support that measure if he were able to do some more research and maybe even compromise a little.

“If we put such an ordinance in place – particularly for companies that we’re trying to incentivize to come into the Tampa Bay area – might they actually choose to go somewhere else that doesn’t have that type of ordinance if they think that it gives them more freedom in their hiring decisions?”

The measure would help people like Marta Pearson whose unemployment benefits have run out. She said out of the hundreds of applications she has submitted, she has only had about six interviews and in one of them, she was told she was over qualified because she had a Master’s degree. But that isn’t Pearson’s only problem.

“Without employment, I’ve had no health insurance and six months ago a medical crisis resulted in more than $100,000 in bills I can’t begin to pay.”

And Flo Haynes, a member of St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church, might be able to pull herself out of the financial and emotional slump unemployment has burdened her with.

“Being unemployed is as harsh a punishment as I could ever experience. It means not only the loss of my income which is significantly important, but also the loss, in many respects, of my dignity. So, I remain pained and deeply depressed as I struggle for the opportunity to make my contribution.”

Tampa City Council member Lisa Montelione supported both ordinances. But she asked that the request to have all of this done by November be pushed back a little.

“Because, as all of you I’m sure know, we have a big party happening here over the summer and November first might be a little tight having just come through the convention in August. We don’t know how busy our legal staff will be responding to any lawsuits that may or may not be filed.”

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and the other four members of Tampa City Council were also invited to last night’s event, but were unable to attend. From here, city attorneys would have to draft the ordinances for city council members to approve. That requires a public hearing and two votes. Council member Frank Reddick said he will lead the charge to implement both ordinances but added he’ll need support from the community.

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