Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series profiling people looking for work amid record-low unemployment.
On the treadmill, Racheal Volkey's mind jumps from encouragement to astonishment.
"'There's something better. Just keep going. I can't believe I've come this far,'" she says. "'I can't believe I'm running. I would have never done this before.'"
Before she went to prison. Before treatment and therapy. Before her early release, before 850 days and counting sober, before perfect marks in a machine operating course. Before the return of hope.
"Living life is something I didn't do for many years," she said.
Now she wants to live to her fullest potential by getting a good job - if only it were so easy.
Last year the unemployment rate in Duluth hit record lows and averaged around 3 percent. For the formerly incarcerated, however, unemployment remains much higher - the Prison Policy Initiative estimates as high as 27 percent nationwide.
"A person might understand how important it is for someone to come back into our community and to get them into a job, into housing, but put that same person in a hiring position as an employer, and their mentality shifts," said Cynthia Finley with Duluth's SOAR Career Solutions, which is helping Volkey find sustainable employment. "It makes it really hard for folks to move forward if we are continuously punishing them."
Volkey is, for now, part of this cycle. Despite putting her best foot forward by furthering her education and polishing her resume and interview skills, her applications have so far gone unanswered.
It's a frustrating time, but her resolve is stronger than her disappointment. It's just like the treadmill: One step at a time.
"I'm not going to give up," she said. "That's who I was, that's not who I am, not who I will be."
If someone met Racheal Volkey solely on paper, they might be quick to judge.
Arrested and imprisoned on drug charges in 2016, she had reached the end of a yearslong spiral following her mother's death. She pleaded guilty to first-degree meth possession, a felony, and was sentenced to four years in prison.
But Racheal, who notes her name contains both ache and heal, is more than her criminal record.
Now 37, she's clear-eyed and calm while recounting her journey into and out of addiction.
"I'm really OK with talking about it," she said. "I'm not in the same position. I can talk about how I've gotten far away from that."
After being released from prison at the end of May, Volkey completed a stay at the Marty Mann halfway house and moved into a local board and lodge in August. She credits cognitive behavioral therapy with helping her think about her thinking and shedding her old shell for good.
"I didn't know there was a choice," she said. "I didn't know I could do something else."
Duluth represents a fresh start for Volkey, who grew up on the Iron Range. Duluth City Hall even hosted her machine operator graduation in December, which Volkey and two other women completed at Lake Superior College via the Women's Economic Security Act. The city called the initiative "one of several that aim to get underemployed individuals into the workforce."
Despite the promise that program provided, Volkey hasn't had a bite on her applications. She's now looking for work outside manufacturing.
"March is my month, no matter what."
The state wants to see former inmates get work, for a few obvious reasons.
"Adults involved in the criminal justice system are more likely to desist from crime when they achieve employment, particularly when that employment pays relatively well and provides favorable working conditions," according to a Minnesota Department of Corrections study from 2017.
Or more simply: "If they have a decent-paying job, they don't go back to prison."
That's how Glory Mitchell puts it. She's a Duluth-based offender specialist with the Department of Employment and Economic Development who works with prisoners and the recently incarcerated to prepare folks for the workforce.
"It's about getting them to buy into the fact they've served their time, and it is in society's and taxpayers' best interest they get a job," she said.
Mitchell helps people overcome the labels and stereotypes they've internalized and take control of their own narrative.
"If your confidence level isn't there, if you don't believe in yourself, it comes across at the interview," she said.
Still, the biases of employers can be a higher hurdle to climb.
"Although employers express willingness to hire people with criminal records, evidence shows that having a record reduces employer callback rates by 50 percent," reads a Prison Policy Initiative report.
Without any change from employers, that means those job-seekers have to work twice as hard.
But the way Emily Baxter sees it, "We've all violated the law, we just haven't all been arrested, charged or convicted for it."
That premise also happens to be the name of Baxter's Minneapolis-based organization, We Are All Criminals, which has traveled the country trying to shake up perceptions of those with criminal backgrounds. Her group estimates one in four Americans have criminal records of some kind.
"Our economy can't afford to continue to embrace the false and unforgiving dichotomy of 'criminal' and 'clean,'" Baxter said. "Minnesota employers are recognizing the pool of previously untapped talent, innovation, creativity, tenacity, loyalty and smarts in justice-impacted people."
Lately, Volkey's full-time job has been taking care of herself. Church, recovery meetings, therapy, Bible study, Community Action Duluth and SOAR Career Solutions are all keeping her feet on the ground and pushing her toward meaningful work and greater independence.
"Just like recovery, you have to want it," Volkey said.
She's aiming high - that was the point of the machine operator course, after all.
"We're trying to help folks not just get that survival job but get something that is going to be sustainable," said Cynthia Finley, a re-entry case manager at SOAR. "It's disappointing when they go through training, and the market doesn't think the way we do."
The Department of Corrections study found that prisoners who took part in a wide range of programming, including substance-abuse treatment and cognitive-behavioral therapy, "significantly improved their chances of finding a job, hours worked and wages earned."
Volkey checks all those boxes. She knows she'll get a job. It's just a matter what it will be.
"I wasn't consistent before. They got in the way of getting high," she said. "I'm ashamed to say it, and now I need to repair it."
Volkey says with the security and stability of a job, she can provide the consistency her daughters deserve. She imagines them coming over to her own place, playing Candy Land, happy to be there.
Those with criminal backgrounds are encouraged to attend a free monthly workshop to gain the confidence and other tools needed to find meaningful work.
In Duluth the New Leaf Workshop is held every third Monday from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the WorkForce Center, 402 W. First St. The next will is slated for March 18.
Register by calling 218-302-8400 or online at www.careerforcemn.com/events.
In Hibbing, these workshops are held every third Wednesday; in Grand Rapids, every fourth Wednesday.
Incentives for employers
Employers can earn up to a $9,600 federal tax credit per worker for hiring certain groups of people who experience chronically high unemployment - including veterans and those with recent felony convictions - through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit.
Employers can also take advantage of a free federal bonding program that insures against losses for six months after hiring a traditionally disadvantaged worker, such as someone with a criminal record.
Call 651-259-7521 or email email@example.com to learn more.
Ban the box
In Minnesota, most employers are not allowed to ask about criminal histories on applications; that discussion can only happen during the interview process. (Exempt businesses include employers who are required to conduct criminal background checks, such as those working with vulnerable adults and children.)
For questions or to report a violation of the "ban the box" law, contact the Minnesota Department of Human Rights at 651-539-1100 or visit mn.gov/mdhr/employers/criminal-background