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Seven Tips for Reentering During the Pandemic

by Timothy McNutt

A few short months ago, you were looking forward to your release date with optimism. Your family and friends were planning on welcoming you home with a huge party. The unemployment rate was at a historically low 3.8 percent. Then, came the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, everything feels different. You can’t hug your family and friends—or even stand too close. Layoffs have affected nearly everyone you know, and most businesses closed. The shelves of your local grocery store are empty, as are the streets of your neighborhood.

You made a plan to establish a life for yourself on the outside. You created a resume highlighting your skills, practiced interviewing, and were even prepared to address the hard questions about your criminal record. Now, you must adjust your reentry plan to a world turned upside down by COVID-19.

Where do you start? Who do you turn to for help?

You need a new strategy for reentry in the time of COVID-19, one that includes caring for your health and the health of your community. As you navigate these uncertain times, it’s important to keep it simple and focus on what you can control. Here are seven tips to get you started:

  1. Remember, you’re in a better place. COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and jails spread “like wildfire” due to close quarters, unsanitary conditions, particularly vulnerable populations, and the high volume of people that cycle through the criminal justice system. Jails are proving to be breeding grounds for the spread of coronavirus. You’re out now, and you have a better chance of staying healthy to achieve your reentry goals.
  2. Don’t forget the basics. Build a resume that highlights your skills, have someone review it, practice for online interviews, write a thank-you note after an interview, and create a professional e-mail address ( These things always make the job search easier, pandemic or not.
  3. Be prepared to talk about your criminal history. Take full responsibility, express your motivation to move forward with your life, stress your desire to provide for yourself and your family, and focus the discussion on the skills you have for the job.
  4. Know that help is available. Non-profits and workforce development groups have changed the way they operate during COVID-19, but there are many services still available. Here is a short list:

    Some reentry programs have helped some get housing vouchers or shelter, but they acknowledge it hasn't worked perfectly.

  5. Know your rights. Pandemic or not, you have legal rights. Lawmakers passed Ban the Box, NY Correction Law Article 23-A, and the Fair Credit Reporting Act to safeguard you from discriminatory hiring practices. See Cornell ILR’s Criminal Justice and Employment Initiative guide in English and Spanish.
  6. Target your job search. The travel, leisure, hospitality, airline, and other industries are experiencing layoffs, as well as small businesses in areas where large public gatherings have been cancelled or postponed. While unemployment is high, and many businesses are closed or have a hiring freeze, find employers that signed a pledge to hire talented workers with criminal records. Moreover, some major retailers, grocery chains, warehouses, and delivery organizations are experiencing a boom in demand. As a result, companies like:
    • Walmart: The nation’s largest employer said it was looking to hire 150,000 employees in its stores and warehouses through the end of May, which is roughly a 10 percent increase to its current work force.
    • Kroger: The grocery chain is hiring 10,000 people across its stores and distribution centers. Amazon: The multinational technology company is also planning to hire 100,000 people to keep up with the crush of online orders.
    • PepsiCo: The soft drink company said it is planning to hire 6,000 new “full-time, full-benefit front-line employees” and is having them start immediately, before their background checks and drug screenings are complete.
    • Walgreens: This national chain said it was hiring for about 9,500 existing full- and part-time roles in stores across the United States.
    • Domino’s: The pizza delivery chain is hiring thousands of workers, including cooks, managers, and drivers.
    • 7-Eleven: The convenience store is looking to fill 20,000 positions for full-time, part-time, and delivery jobs.
    • Albertsons Companies: Albertson’s, the parent company of Safeway, Randall’s, United Supermarkets and other grocers, is looking to hire 30,000 store associates, managers, and other in-store employees.
    • Dollar General: The discount retail chain expects to hire 50,000 new workers by the end of April in response to increased demand from the coronavirus outbreak.
    • Dollar Tree/Family Dollar: Dollar Tree, the parent company of Family Dollar, is hiring 25,000 full-time and part-time employees across its retail stores and distribution centers. The company is looking to fill positions for cashiers, stockers, fillers, equipment operators, and warehouse associates.

    In addition, check out these resources:

  7. Take care of your health. You should wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, avoid touching your face, put distance between yourself and other people, cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others, cover coughs and sneezes, and clean surfaces daily.

    Governor Cuomo Directs Department of Health to Apply for Federal Waiver to Provide Medicaid Services to Incarcerated Individuals Leaving Prisons and Jails

The process of returning home from prison or jail is difficult under the best circumstances. You face barriers in finding a home and a job, reconnecting with family and friends, and accessing needed medical and mental health care. While best practices for reentry in the time of COVID-19 are yet to be developed, these seven tips can help.

At Cornell ILR, we are creating this information hub to share essential information, proposed policies, and other resources for impacted populations, employers and public officials to help them — and all of us — confront this pandemic with a recognition of our shared vulnerabilities. There are many advocates on your side looking for ways to increase access to employment, housing and health care.

Timothy McNutt

  • Director, Criminal Justice and Employment Initiative

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