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Breaking barriers to employment

There’s no erasing the past, but a recent change in Pennsylvania law — and a helping hand from Partner4Work — could help some people overcome past transgressions when it comes to finding employment.

Partner4Work and others including Duquesne University School of Law, Neighborhood Legal Services, the Allegheny Bar Association and PA CareerLink marked the change in the law with a first-of-its-kind event to help those previously left out of the workforce. The event, held Nov. 14 at the City-County Building Downtown, featured free legal advice from a cadre of volunteer attorneys as well as a job fair and training information services; nearly 500 job seekers from across Allegheny County attended, several of whom were able to start the sealing process at no cost.

“There are people who are eligible to have their record expunged after a certain period of time but don’t know that and don’t know how to go through this process,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “We have so many needs of jobs that need filled in Western Pennsylvania and there are people who need jobs. So imagining these two together to me is a win-win for everybody.”

Too often, even minor convictions can prevent someone from getting hired or finding a place to live. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed a bill in February allowing individuals with certain misdemeanor convictions to request that their records sealed to the general public. Law enforcement will still have access to a sealed copy; however employers and landlords will not. That can remove a major obstacle in finding a job or housing.

That might be the case for Michael Finch of Pittsburgh.

While the retired city firefighter holds a commercial driver’s license, a previous conviction prevents him from driving for a commercial company as an encore career. He attended Expungement Day to meet with attorneys and begin the process to seal his record.

“I’m hoping it would help me if I’d like to get employment with a bus company or someone,” says Finch. “This (offense) goes back 12 or 13 years ago and I’ve been trouble-free ever since. I think I’ve paid my debt.”

“If I can get this expunged, maybe it will lead to bigger and better things for me.

The expungement law only applies to some misdemeanors after fines and court costs are settled and only for people who have never been convicted of a felony. Those qualifying for expungement must be free of arrest and conviction for 10 years following the completion of their sentence and the expungement process can take up to one year.

Amanda Irwin of North Versailles saw a news report about Expungement Day and joined the line of those waiting for information and legal advice. “I am actually here to try to get something expunged from my record that’s holding me back from a job,” she said. “The charges were withdrawn but it still shows up on my record. When people pull my record they see that and say, oh, we can’t hire her.”

Irwin said she believes many people in Southwestern Pennsylvania are in her same situation and need help but don’t know how to do about it.

Fitzgerald applauded the cooperation that made Expungement Day possible in Allegheny County and says he hopes the change in the law will help both job seekers and employers moving forward.

“This doesn’t make sense that we have a lot of people who have records that could be expunged but they may not know that about some minor offense that happened years ago,” he says. “Now, they have help through the legal process, and we want to get the word out to people to take a look at it.”

Every person who attended Expungement Day will receive individual follow-up services from Duquesne University and PA CareerLink. Additional expungement events will be held at community-based organizations throughout Allegheny County for the next few months.