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Meeting of July 26, 2011 – EEOC to Examine Arrest and Conviction Records as a Hiring Barrier

Written Testimony of Michael F. Curtin, Jr.
President and CEO, D.C. Central Kitchen

Good morning. My name is Michael Curtin and I am the CEO of the D.C. Central Kitchen. I’d like to thank the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for inviting me to be part of this important conversation. Empowering people to overcome challenges, including incarceration, is at the heart of what D.C. Central Kitchen does.

The mission of D.C. Central Kitchen is to use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build communities. The Kitchen was founded twenty two years ago on a very simple principle: waste is wrong. That waste could be food that is being thrown out, kitchens that aren’t being used by people, or productive minds that have been marginalized and perhaps discarded by society.

Prior to founding DC Central Kitchen, Robert Egger had been in the night club and hospitality business. Reluctantly, he went out with a church group one night to hand out sandwiches and coffee to men and women lined up on the streets of DC. What he saw that night and the questions it caused him to ask would lead to the founding of the DC Central Kitchen.

What Robert saw was an incredibly wasteful and inefficient system that ultimately wasn’t really helping people “get out of line.” In fact, he felt, it might actually be keeping them in that line. He saw dozens of well-intentioned people who truly felt that they were making an impact but were ultimately just putting a rather ineffective bandage on a large, intractable problem. Combining this experience with his years in the hospitality business, Robert proposed what could be described on one hand as common sense and, on the other, as revolutionary.

What Robert proposed was collecting food from restaurants, hotels and caterers that was going to be thrown away and bringing that food to a central location, a central kitchen. The food would then be re-prepared into healthy meals and then delivered to agencies that were already working with men and women trying to get them to a life of self-sufficiency. He further proposed that while this food was being prepared, we could actually take the men and women who had been in line for a handout and train them so that they could work in the hospitality venues that were donating food. This would allow them to break the cycle of hunger, homelessness and poverty on their own and help them down the road to a life of self-sufficiency.

Robert believed he had a system that would work here in Washington and, more importantly, could be replicated in communities across the country. What Robert felt he was missing was a way to kick off the program and with it gain a lot of attention, for free. This was the winter of 1988, just before George H.W Bush’s inauguration. Robert reached out to President-elect Bush’s people and suggested they work together. DC Central Kitchen offered a way for the new administration to show it was invested in the District of Columbia by donating all the leftover food from the inaugural balls to DC Central Kitchen. DC Central Kitchen not only found a huge first donation of food, but a donation that came with international press and attention. The Kitchen became one of President Bush’s 100 Points of Light, and the Kitchen was off to the races.

I came to the DC Central Kitchen in 2004 after spending fifteen years in the hospitality industry in the DC metro area, including working at the Hay-Adams Hotel, the Dixie Grill, and McCormick and Schmick’s. In 1998, I opened my own restaurant, The Broad Street Grill, in Falls Church, VA. I owned and operated that restaurant for four years – a time I now describe as my first experience in the nonprofit sector. I am a Chair Emeritus of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington and was the Chair of that organization from 2001 – 2003. While Chair, I was able to focus on the significant role I believe restaurants play in our community and our economy. It was also at this time that I got to know Robert Egger and DC Central Kitchen.

Soon after opening my restaurant, I was struck by the unbelievable number of requests that I had for donations of gift certificates, meals, sponsorships and charity events. In order to manage them, I decided I would do my best to do everything I could in Falls Church and would pick two local nonprofits to partner with. Because of their focus on job training and their industry focus, one was DC Central Kitchen. During that time, I volunteered at the Kitchen, donated equipment and product and did small fundraisers at my restaurant for them.

I had always believed that food is one thing that unites all of us. Most of us don’t have the same “food story” from our childhood or a memory that has stuck with us for decades, but we all have one. There is something about food that ultimately gets to the core of our humanity, what makes us what we are. Food is the vehicle that brings us together and this is exactly the angle that the Kitchen uses every day to create change in our community.

Every day, DC Central Kitchen produces and delivers over 6000 meals to shelters, transitional homes, halfway houses, senior centers, after school programs for kids and a host of other social service agencies. Perhaps more importantly, we run a nationally recognized Culinary Job Training Program that trains men and women who are ex-offenders, recovering addicts and/or formerly homeless individuals for jobs in the hospitality industry. Each year we work with and graduate between 80 and 100 men and women for jobs in the hospitality business.

The 16-week Culinary Curriculum covers all facets of work in a professional kitchen. In addition, roughly half the time the students spend with us is dedicated to what are often referred to as “soft” skills or “life” skills; we refer to them as Empowerment Skills. These are the skills that may not be vital for a graduate to get a job, but they are the skills that will help them keep the job. This, we believe, is one reason for our success and what differentiates our program as a “job Training” program as opposed to a “vocational” training program. In addition, all graduates complete the ServSafe Food Protection Manager’s Certification Course, the nationally recognized course from the National Restaurant Association’s Educational Foundation. As every operating commercial kitchen needs a certified food handler on premises at all times, this certification is a tremendous help in securing a job.

We are also very fortunate to have the strong support of the local restaurant and hotel communities. Local celebrity chefs such as Jose Andres, Todd Grey, Scott Drewno and Carla Hall regularly visit the Kitchen to work with our students and to help guide them into their new careers.

Students also participate in a one week internship at a local hotel, restaurant, catering or foodservice operation. Here they are exposed to various facets of kitchen operations under the supervision of mentoring chefs. Most importantly, this provides the students with an opportunity to prove to themselves that they can succeed outside of DC Central Kitchen and they can perform in a new environment with their new skills. Some of the host sites include the DC Convention Center, the Canadian Embassy, the National Institutes of Health and National Geographic.

We recognize that some of the people who come enter our program may not be job-ready. Our Workforce Development Coordinator works with participants on job-readiness skills such as punctuality, resume writing, computer literacy, interviewing techniques, positive work attitude, and teamwork. Graduates are assisted in an intense job search to obtain full-time employment at local restaurants, hotels, caterers and other hospitality businesses. In addition to finding employment at many of the operations that have hosted internships, students have recently been employed at Good Stuff Eatery, Rustico, Vermillion, Jaleo, the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, Marriott at Wardman Park, Holiday Inn Capitol, Aramark Food Service, Armed Forces Retirement Home, DC Public Schools, Fiesta In A Box Catering, Geppetto Catering, the Smithsonian Institution and Revolution Foods.

Last year alone, we graduated 91 students, 71 of whom were ex-offenders. Simple math will tell you that training, employing or providing employment for those folks saved our community at least $2.4 million in incarceration costs. Those ex-offenders made approximately $2 million in wages, contributing another $100,000 in payroll taxes alone. Of course there is the enormous associated spin off revenue - they are out of supported housing, paying rent, buying food, buying clothes, going to the movies, and supporting their families.

DC Central Kitchen is also a vibrant social enterprise operation, and that allows us to employ many of our graduates. Over the last four years, DCCK has generated over $13 million in social enterprise revenue. The staff for these programs is comprised almost entirely of our Culinary Job Training Program graduates, and most of them have been convicted of a crime.

Our first social enterprise business was Fresh Start Catering. We started this business thirteen years ago as an employment project with the goal of offering a more cost-effective catering alternative for other nonprofits. This has developed into a full-service catering and dining services business. We have also developed other businesses, including produce processing and wholesale of processed product that we have purchased from local farms and growers.

In addition to generating revenue to support the programs and services of DCCK, Fresh Start serves as an example to other businesses. Everyone at Fresh Start begins at the District’s living wage of $12.50 per hour. In addition, DCCK pays 100% of everyone’s health insurance. We also provide everyone with short term and long term disability insurance and a life insurance policy. We also have a very generous paid vacation and personal/sick time policy and we match 50 cents for each dollar an employee contributes to their retirement plan. These wages and benefits compare very favorably to what our staff would otherwise have been able to earn, and help to ensure that they are able to escape the poverty that led some of them to commit crimes.

Today, 51% of the 115 full-time employees of DC Central Kitchen are graduates of our program, and 38% of those are individuals who were convicted of crimes. Many of them are in management and supervisory roles and play a significant role in the on-going success of DC Central Kitchen. Together these people earn roughly $1.2 million and pay the District approximately $60,000 in payroll taxes. Add in the associated economic activity of this group, and we are talking huge numbers. This is just another reason why this issue needs to be looked at as an economic development issue, and not strictly a social services one.

An excellent illustration of the power of social enterprise is our partnership with the Washington Jesuit Academy, a tuition-free, private school for at-risk boys in Northeast Washington D.C. While the national conversation about the need to reform school lunches is now gaining a lot of media attention, we have had a contract with WJA for several years to provide their students with three nutritious, appetizing meals a day, using fresh local food. When we began discussions with the Board of Directors about this very progressive change to their school food program, some board members raised concerns about the criminal backgrounds of some of our the kitchen staff. We simply told them that completely eliminating ex-offenders from our staff was unacceptable and would be a deal breaker for us. Instead, we were able to have a conversation and draw a line between “acceptable” offenses and “unacceptable” offenses. We agreed that anyone with a violent offense such as armed robbery or assault with a weapon would not be eligible to work at the school. This allowed a whole host of people who had lesser offenses, mostly small drug charges, to be eligible to work in the school.

What we have seen as a result is truly remarkable. The graduates who have been placed at the school come from very similar backgrounds as the students who attend the school. Many of them are from single-parent households and live in marginalized and economically challenged environments. They are faced with many of the same questions and decisions that our students faced when they were younger. Unfortunately, many of our students made the wrong decisions and went down the wrong road. They are now able to talk with these boys very frankly and honestly about the decisions they made and the price they paid because of these decisions. They can show the boys the value of staying in school and not giving into the temptations of gangs and the allure of quick cash and what might appear to be a glamorous lifestyle.

What we have also seen is that our graduates have an increased sense of self-worth as they are working not only to support themselves and their families, but are helping to positively affect the lives of the next generation. They take pride in being positive role models and mentors. For many of these individuals, this was something they never considered they would have the opportunity to do. Not only do they have a job - a good job which pays a living wage and benefits - but they are in a place that allows them to help young lives as opposed to destroying them as they were when they were selling drugs. However, we are mindful that we are working in a school environment. The staff placed at WJA and other schools have all gone through our rigorous admissions process, successfully completed our class, interviewed for the job and then been hired to do this job. We do not accept into our program, or place in schools, sex offenders or people who have committed crimes against children. But I believe we need to think about what it is that we’re really afraid of when we blindly and very acceptingly say that no ex-offenders should be allowed to work in schools. The safety of the children should of course be the biggest concern. If we are afraid of pedophiles in schools, we should say that. As we all know, pedophiles will rarely have records and they actually work harder than most people to avoid any kind of contact with law enforcement, even traffic violations. In fact, sex offenders or offenders with crimes against children is the line that we draw. We do not accept offenders with these kinds of convictions into our program.

Unfortunately, our experience with the DC Public Schools system has not been as productive. In August of 2010, after an extensive RFP process, we were chosen by the City to run a pilot program that provided locally-sourced scratch cooked meals in seven DC public schools in Wards 7 and 5. I do not believe there is anyone who will deny the very real link between nutrition and education, and the value of providing all students with good healthy food so that they can focus on their studies and perform well in the classroom. The need for healthy food in schools where students might not be eating well or enough at home is even more acute. Although the program has been wildly successful in practice with participation rates for breakfast and lunch increasing more than DCPS had hoped, there remain administrative hurdles that will more than likely prevent us from expanding this program into other schools that could certainly benefit from it. However, the DCPS’ opaque background check policy has been a real barrier to the program. They will not or can not tell us what their background check policy is, and they make decisions that seem very arbitrary. Although many companies who do business with the District, including DCPS, are required to first source work locally, their contracts with the District government prohibit the hiring of ex-offenders. I can speak specifically to our experience trying to get “clearance” for our graduates to staff our contract with the DC Public Schools. The clearance system is onerous, completely non-transparent and has no specific guidelines. Graduates from our program have been denied clearance for minor offenses dating back 5-10 years. In one case, a woman was denied clearance for missing a scheduled custody hearing a decade ago even though the case had been adjudicated. We have had people with no criminal history rejected because they failed to fill out the application correctly. Applicants who have not been “cleared” have been asked to go back and retrieve court records that are five to ten years old to prove a matter had been adjudicated. Simply put, because of the District’s screening process, many students will be denied access to healthy food and we will not be able to provide jobs for many District residents who want nothing more than to move on with their lives in a productive self-sufficient way.

We would like to continue and expand our work with DCPS, as they have asked us to do, but we may not be able to because of this situation. What is more frustrating is that the government is telling us jobs are a priority, especially jobs for folks from Wards 7 and 8, where there is less economic opportunity and more people have arrest or conviction records. We have the jobs and we have the people within these particular populations who want nothing more than an opportunity at a fresh start and a life of self-sufficiency. At this time, it is the government that is stopping us from making this happen.

Clearly, I do not believe that all ex-offenders should be able to work in schools. Certainly there are those that need to be excluded from that potential pool of applicants. For example people convicted of sex crimes or crimes against children should not be allowed to work in schools – these happen to be the two lines we draw at the Kitchen when considering students for our program and others for employment. But a background check policy that is unclear, arbitrary and poorly managed can unfairly deny a significant part of the population an opportunity to be contributing members of our community and in many ways almost ensure that they will return to behaviors that will put them back in jail where they will once again be an economic drain on all of us.

A few months ago, I testified before a DC City Council committee that was considering legislation regarding returning citizens and jobs. There were many testifying on behalf of ex-offenders, and all were asked a simple question from the dais; “Do you or does your firm employ returning citizens?” I was shocked to hear how many of those people responded, “No.” This very clearly shows us that even when intentions are good and it is easy to say we want to do the right thing, it is another thing completely to actually do it and to hire a qualified person who may have an arrest or conviction on their record.

There are other programs like DC Central Kitchen that have as their mission the training and employing of returning citizens. We do this not only because it’s the “right” thing to do or even the “good” thing to do. We do it because it is also the “smart” thing to do,

It costs us, the taxpayers, about $45,000 per year to keep someone incarcerated. That is money we will never see again and never get back. It costs DC Central Kitchen, on the other hand, about $10,000 to train an ex-offender for 16 weeks and either help them find a job or hire them ourselves into one of our social enterprise programs. Last year, DC Central Kitchen earned $3.6 million through social enterprise programs.

In the District of Columbia, 73% of people getting out of jail will re-offend and go back to prison within a year – the national average is about 65% over three years – mostly because they can’t get a job. So, the overwhelming majority of the 2000 prisoners released in our city every year, will be back in jail, costing us all more money, approximately $6.5 million. In contrast, the recidivism rate over the last three years of returning citizens who have graduated from the DC Central Kitchen Culinary Job Training Program is less than 2.5%.

There is a movement that is making some serious progress across the country known as “Ban the Box.” The concept is simple: remove the question that exists on just about every job application that asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?,” or some variation of that.

Let me be very clear, I am not saying that an employer should not be able to ask that question in an interview, nor am I saying that all offenders should be allowed to work in all jobs. What I am saying is the fact that someone has a criminal history – regardless of the time, circumstances, what has happened since – should not be used to summarily dismiss someone from the opportunity to interview for a job. But this is exactly what is happening. Just as the District has taken a leadership role on many issues, it would be wonderful to see the Council not only join this movement, but be a leader in a larger national movement to Ban the Box. And the EEOC can help by educating the District government and other employers about the law and holding them accountable if they deny people opportunity just because they have been arrested or convicted of a crime.

As a society, we tell people convicted of a crime that if you do your time, you will have a second chance. The reality is that everyone in prison isn’t Michael Vick, and that simply isn’t true.

Let me finish by telling you about just one of our graduates, Dawain Arrington.

I’d like to tell you briefly about one of our graduates who spent over 17 years of his life in prison – starting when he was 11, living in SE, and was locked up for stealing food to feed his brothers while his dad was locked up for dealing drugs and his mom, a drug abuser, was out on a bender. This started a tragic but very predictable spiral into drugs, violence and gangs that landed him in jail again for what was supposed to be a 35 year sentence.

During that last stay, he realized that he couldn’t continue this lifestyle. He did exactly what we told him to. He got his GED, he got a dry wall certificate, a welding certificate and a masonry certificate. With a great deal of luck, he was released after 13 years thinking he would now be able to start over. The only thing he did for two months was apply for posted jobs requiring the skills he had learned in prison. The only thing he got was doors slammed in his face because of his record.

He told his case worker that he might as well send him back to prison now because without a job and with no prospects, he would have to turn to the life he knew that would either see him dead or back in prison. Instead, that case worker sent him to DC Central Kitchen. Now, this is not intended to be a commercial for DC Central Kitchen. He just happened to come to us because we had recruited at his halfway house and that case worker knew about our program.

Dawain wasn’t a model student from day one, but he got himself into shape and did an excellent job. We had an opening in our catering department when he graduated in 2005, and we hired him. He has been with us ever since and is now a supervisor in charge of putting out the 4800 meals we produce for the City’s shelters, half-way houses, transitional homes and other social service programs in our community. He also now has a daughter who will never have the expectation he did when he was eleven years of old: “If I live to be 21, which I probably won’t, I’ll be in prison.”

That is what a job can do. As a community, we’ve spent close to a million dollars keeping Dawain locked up. Don’t get me wrong - he did some bad things and deserved to be locked up. The chances are very good that if had not come to the Kitchen and not gotten a job, he would be costing us all money today. Instead he is putting money into our economy, helping others while he’s doing that and, perhaps most importantly, changing the expectations of the next generation and those to follow. Saving us all millions along the way.

I realize that talking about victories 15, 20, 30 years down the road is tough to calculate and maybe even harder to sell politically. The beauty of it is, it starts paying today and keeps paying well beyond tomorrow.

As I said, I have been in the hospitality business for over two decades. I can say with confidence that I have never felt more confident of and comfortable with any staff I have ever had than the staff we have at DC Central Kitchen. While we are certainly not without our issues, I trust this staff and depend on them. I honestly feel that the men and women working at the Kitchen not only see a higher purpose in our work, but they understand the value of the job. On many occasions, I have been told by members of our team that this job not only saved their lives but is the one thing that is keeping them from going back to prison or winding up dead on the streets.

I am honored and grateful to be able to be here today and I would ask the EEOC to use its authority and help remove the barriers to employment that ex-offenders face not just because it is the right or the good thing to do but because it is also the smart thing to do. Every single day I see people who have committed to changing their lives and the lives of their families. The only thing we are asking is that these individuals are given a fighting chance and are not blindly discriminated against because of mistakes they have made in the past.