POTTSTOWN — America has a severe labor shortage, but it also has an untapped labor pool ready and willing to work. They just need a chance — a second chance.
That was the primary topic of discussion Wednesday as U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo sat down for a roundtable with local, state and federal officials and workers and management at American Keg Co.
There they met Jonathan Adcock and Joe Yanelli, both of whom are trusted workers at American Keg and both of whom were hired despite having a record of drug use convictions.
Adcock grew up in Allentown and “I made some bad choices after my grandmother died.”
He ended up at a halfway house in Pottstown and got hired at American Keg, whose owners have made a conscious choice to keep their minds and doors open to all kinds of job applicants.
Yanelli similarly ran afoul of the law due to substance abuse problems after he lost his previous job when the business went bankrupt. “I came here from New Jersey six months ago. Before that, I was in Miami and Las Vegas,” he told the roundtable.
He has since become trained at every station and can run any manufacturing machine in the facility. “There is no machine here I can’t operate,” he said.
American Keg employees Joe Yanelli, front left, and Jonathan Adcock, talk about the challenges they faced and the chance they’ve been given with jobs at the company.(Evan Brandt — MediaNews Group)
Adcock, who benefitted from a “12-step fellowship” program and now runs one for American Keg employees who want to participate, said “I didn’t know how to live on my own. I had to learn that feelings are not necessarily facts and had to learn to practice a lot of acceptance” as he overcame the challenges of finding and keeping a job, and buying a car that would not unbalance his credit rating.
The hard work has paid off “and on June 10 I am closing on my first home,” he said.
Those given a second chance by American Keg, “are some of our most valuable employees and several of them have the keys to the place,” said Mike Hane, the site manager.
The second chance employees they’ve hired said American Keg CEO Paul Czachor, “are very honest and upfront about what they’re bringing to the table. And we kept getting good employees when we first got connected with Pottstown Works,” a Pottstown agency dedicated to connecting jobs with people who need to learn some basic skill sets to keep them.
“These people just need a chance, and they’re hungry,” Czachor said.
That said, “this is not a social service agency,” said American Keg owner Scott Bentley. “I bought this company to save the jobs and I found out pretty quickly that doing the right thing is also doing the smart thing.”
“This just requires a different mindset, understanding that someone might need to go see a parole officer on a Friday, ” said Jeffrey Abramowitz, executive director of Justice Partnerships, JEVS Human Services and Chairman of the Housing, Education, Employment, and Basic Needs Sub-committee of the Pennsylvania Reentry Council.
He said the prison system is failing those inside by not training them in basic skills like computer use. “We’re not teaching them how to use a computer and the first thing we do when they get out is tell them to go to a website and apply for a job,” he said. “The system does not recognize that it’s more than just getting them a job. The issues they face don’t just go away when they get a job.”
Those needing a second chance can face difficulties as simple as transportation — getting to work can be a daily challenge.
“We’re spending $80 billion a year on a rehabilitation system that’s failing two-thirds of the time, because that’s how many end up back behind bars,” said Abramowitz, a former trial lawyer in Philadelphia who also made some poor choices, spent five years in federal prison and now advocates for better options for those who have been released.
“We should do something as simple as issue them an ID card, a Social Security Card, all things you need to get a job,” he said. The system needs to be more integrated between labor, education and corrections, he said. “They need to work together and stop working in their individual silos.”
“We’re all sitting around saying we can’t find workers and we’re sitting on top of a talent pool that’s been right in front of us all along,” he said.
“In Pennsylvania, we do two things well: steel and beer,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey. “The commonwealth is also at the forefront of criminal justice reform to reduce barriers for workforce reentry by passing critical laws like the Clean Slate Act,” he said adding, “we have a shot” at getting federal legislation passed this year that mirrors the state law passed in 2018 that has already expunged 40 million records.
“We have a criminal justice system where they will charge you with all kinds of crimes,” said Abramowitz. “You may only get convicted of one, but all those other charges stay on your record and follow you for the rest of your life.”
From left, American Keg owner Scott Bentley, CEO Paul Czachor, state Rep. Joe Ciresi, Montgomery County Commissioners Chair Valerie Arkoosh, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, U.S. Rep. Madeline Dean, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and worker Emmanuel Lego during a tour of the Pottstown facility on June 1.(Submitted Photo)
State Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-146th Dist., said Pennsylvania is currently sitting on a $9 billion surplus rather than investing in the mental health and workforce training that could make it easier on those trying to reenter society.
“And let’s be honest, Pennsylvania has a system where money matters. You have someone who is incarcerated for a white-collar crime who is out in three months. They had money when they went in and they have money when they come out and they can afford to pay a lawyer to clean up their record,” Ciresi said. “And then you have these people who are trying to put their lives back together, find a job and a place to live. They don’t have thousands of dollars to pay a lawyer for three years to get their record cleaned up and they go right back into the system.”
U.S. Rep. Madeline Dean, D-4th Dist., also observed that the federal government has provided at least $7 billion to the state “the help with education and mental health, but it hasn’t happened. Don’t tell me you’re saving it for a rainy day. If that wasn’t two years of the rainiest days of our lives then I don’t know what was.”