Ex-convict program welcomes workers, keeps them out of trouble
By John Crudele
Michael Van Leuvan has a wife and three kids and lives in the Bronx. He’s thrilled to be earning $20 an hour as the manager of a Mexican fast food restaurant in Manhattan, and he’s hoping to get a 10 percent raise in the near future.
He’ll probably get it because the owners of Dos Toros, the restaurant chain he works for, not only appear to like Michael, but they also seem proud of him.
Ordinarily, someone like Michael wouldn’t make it into this column — or any newspaper story.
There are millions of others in the city who, like him, go about their jobs day after day, getting a paycheck with little or no recognition.
What makes Michael different is that he’s an ex-convict. Now 31, he was 15 when he was sent away for drugs. He was 20 and on parole when he robbed someone at knifepoint in the Manhattan projects for $37. For that and other offenses, he spent a total of 10 years in prison.
Now he’s part of a city program called GOSO — short for Getting Out & Staying Out — that’s helping young men like Michael get their act together after they’ve been released from prison.
In Michael’s case, it all started in a gang and multiple trips to prison on various charges after he landed back out on the streets.
“When I first came home [from prison], I didn’t even know how to do a résumé or a job interview,” Michael told me the other day at the Dos Toros restaurant on West 40th Street near Bryant Park.
Staples and McDonald’s turned him down for work. “They wouldn’t take me. I had no work experiences,” says Michael, who seems to understand that logic.
With nothing to do, he ended up doing no good and went back to prison. And convictions — especially multiple ones — aren’t the sort of things that get people hired. So he wasn’t.
Dos Toros is one of around 90 companies that has worked with GOSO, which has been operating for 15 years and now has a dozen men between 16 and 24 years old at companies where it hopes they will eventually get permanent jobs.
The company has eight GOSO workers now. Over the past four years, Dos Toros has hired a total of 30 men from the program. Michael has been the most successful thanks to his promotion to manager.
There are another six GOSO workers at other companies in the city now. The program has a recidivism rate of 15 percent. Compare that with the national average of 70 percent.
A couple weeks ago, I started what is going to be an occasional series of columns about people in their jobs. Some will be heartwarming like I think this one is. Some columns will be — I both promise and threaten — more offbeat.
This will be the antidote to writing so often, as I do, about job statistics without showing any of the human faces attached to the data.
The story of Michael and GOSO is especially interesting to me because I see a lot of employment statistics about various demographic groups but nothing about how ex-prisoners are doing once they are released.
This is a snapshot of that group.
Geoffrey Golia, associate executive director of GOSO, says his organization pays the first 240 hours of work for men like Michael. Once the ex-offenders complete that internship period, they are either hired or let go by the companies in which they have been placed.
Golia says about 70 percent of GOSO’s placements end up getting a full-time job. And they are hired at the same pay rate as everyone else — no discounts because they are desperate.
“The guys in the GOSO program could have been arrested for something as small as turnstile jumping,” Golia says, “all the way to serious crimes like assault, robbery and manslaughter.”
“They’ve had challenging experiences in their lives,” Golia says. “We focus on a very specific demographic. And there are a lot of issues there about unemployment and underemployment.”
Darrel Sharpe is another worker who was hired last October by Dos Toros. He got picked up for having stolen property, which he says was a misunderstanding with a young woman he knew.
I was concerned that putting Michael and Darrel in this story would cause them trouble because many of their co-workers might not know their background. I also worried that Dos Toros might suffer some backlash when its cooperation with GOSO was made public.
But everyone agreed to cooperate and allowed their names and details to be used.
Darrel said he ended up spending a month and a half in jail for the stolen property, and he needed to pay $800 in restitution to the victim.
His first internship at a landscaping company didn’t work out.
“They kinda let me go,” he said. A stint at a golf course in Westchester also didn’t last.
The job at the Mexican restaurant stuck.
“I’ve really come a long way,” Darrel told me. “I don’t mind telling my story.
“The people love me here and I love them,” Darrel says. He mentions a pizza and a cake his co-workers bought for his recent birthday as proof.
Oliver and Leo Kremer own Dos Toros, a restaurant chain that now has 20 locations, including 16 in New York. They credit their chief human resource officer with coming up with the idea of hiring people who have been convicted of crimes and paid the price.
“Honestly, it’s been a total win,” says Leo, who started using GOSO four years ago. “In our experience, everyone we work with from GOSO is really committed to doing a great job.”
Some, for sure, didn’t work out. But Oliver says the rate of GOSO-sponsored workers who had to be let go is small and proportional to workers who weren’t hired through the program.
“When someone doesn’t have much of an opportunity and you give them an opportunity, they want to do a really great job,” is the way Leo summed it up.