In search of truck drivers, are felons the answer?

( Photo: Shutterstock )

(Photo: Shutterstock)

The statistics are alarming: a shortage of 50,000 truck drivers today, and perhaps 100,000 or more in just a few short years. There are those who believe the shortage is related to compensation and not a lack of willing drivers, but whatever the reason is, trucking companies are struggling to fill seats. It’s repeated each quarter by CEOs in their earnings reports and the American Trucking Associations notes it regularly as well.

Part of the problem is turnover, which is different from a lack of drivers. Many experts believe turnover is being exacerbated by hiring bonuses, giving drivers incentive to jump from carrier to carrier. But the underlying problem remains the aging driver population and the lack of younger drivers coming into the industry.

And yet, even as the industry struggles to identify new drivers, there is a segment of the U.S. population just looking for jobs. In fact, that population is currently facing a 27% unemployment rate, even as the nation’s overall unemployment is at historic lows. That group, formerly incarcerated people, is an untapped resource that the Prison Policy Initiative says could help businesses, not just trucking, fill needs. There are currently nearly 7 million unfilled jobs, the Department of Labor reports.

The group says that those released from prison are “more likely than the average American to want to work,” but they have difficult times finding jobs. Black women, age 35-44 who have been in prison, face an unemployment rate of 43.6% versus the general population of 6.4%. The same story is told across other demographics, with 35.2% of black men unemployed versus 7.7% of the general population; 23.2% of white women versus 4.3%, and 18.4% of white men versus 4.3%.

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“These high unemployment rates reflect public will, policy, and practice – not differences in aspirations,” Lucius Couloute, author of Out of Prison & Out of Work, a Prison Policy Initiative, wrote in the report.

“Although we have long known that labor market outcomes for people who have been to prison are poor, these results point to extensive economic exclusion that would certainly be the cause of great public concern if they were mirrored in the general population,” Couloute notes.

The author notes that having a criminal record reduces employer callbacks by 50%.

“As our analysis illustrates, formerly incarcerated people are almost five times more likely than the general public to be unemployed, and many who are employed remain relegated to the most insecure jobs,” Couloute writes. “Our analysis also shows that formerly incarcerated people of color and women face the worst labor market disadvantages despite being more likely to be looking for jobs.”

It’s been estimated that almost 25% of the working-age population has some kind of criminal record. An estimated 600,000 people transition from prison to society each year in this country, many seeking a way to find meaningful employment and reintegrate to society. With such a large segment of the population unemployed, it might be tempting for trucking companies to reach out to this group, and while some trucking companies do, it is not as easy as it may seem.

For one, some convictions are disqualifying, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, but the agency does not say that those with a felony conviction can’t be drivers. According to a Q&A on its website, FMCSA says that the “Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) do not prohibit a driver who has been convicted of a felony, such as drug dealing, from operating a Commercial Motor Vehicle (CMV) unless the offense involved the use of a CMV. If the offense involved a non-CMV, or was unrelated to motor vehicles, there is no FMCSR prohibition to employment of the person as a driver.”

There are some exceptions to this, but generally trucking companies can’t decline to hire someone because they have a felony on their record. Lana Batts, co-president of DriverIQ, which provides background screening services for the industry, says the crime and the time elapsed since the crime occurred are important factors.

“They’re insuring guys with convictions every day because we’re doing background checks [on them] every day,” she tells FreightWaves. “Within the standards we do for the major carriers and LTL carriers, we look at relevant crimes in relevant times. And we can see things outside those relevant times [and insurers] are insuring those drivers.”

The issue, Batts says, is what was the conviction for? If it’s drugs, “FMCSA says you can’t hire them.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), notes that an employer is not prohibited about asking about criminal history, but “laws do prohibit employers from discriminating when they use criminal history information.”

EEOC notes, and Batts reiterated, that convictions are different from arrests. “The fact that an individual was arrested is not proof that he engaged in criminal conduct. Therefore, an individual's arrest record standing alone may not be used by an employer to take a negative employment action (e.g., not hiring, firing or suspending an applicant or employee). However, an arrest may trigger an inquiry into whether the conduct underlying the arrest justifies such action,” EEOC says.

So, if Batts statement that drivers with criminal convictions are being hired on a daily basis, why can’t trucking make greater use of this population of unemployed job seekers?

“It’s relevance to the job and it’s relevant time period [for the crime],” she says. “What motor carriers are trying to do is hire drivers, not deny employment.”

Which takes us back to which convictions are acceptable to carriers and which are not. In general, with federal drug tests required of all drivers, most carriers don’t want anything to do with anyone convicted of a drug offense. Most are still shying away from marijuana convictions, even as the drug becomes legal in more states. Under federal regulations, it is still illegal for truck drivers. Someone who robbed a bank might be okay as a long-haul truck driver, but a security company such as Brinks probably would not consider that person.

Batts also says that investigation is sometimes required to determine what the true crime was.
“Sometimes prosecutors get overzealous in what they charge you with,” she notes, mentioning that whether it was a rock or a missile you threw, the charge could be the same.

If a carrier decides to hire those with criminal convictions, Batts says to have strong rules in place and don’t leave the decision up to a recruiter. “If it comes down to a lawsuit … if you leave it to a case-by-case basis, you’re going to get caught,” she advises.

In the end, it’s important to remember that it’s illegal to deny employment just because they have a conviction on their record. The EEOC says it must be relevant to the job and in a relevant timeframe. And, just because a shipper insists a no convict policy is included in a contract, Batts says that does not absolve the trucking company of responsibility.