This jobs program offers another chance to those who have run out of them

After eight years of living a life devoted to shooting heroin and meth, Adam Criss didn’t have much hope for sobriety, let alone finding and keeping a decent job.

His addictions had led to two convictions on felony charges. One of them, for a second-degree burglary, resulted in five years behind bars in the Grant County Jail and various other county lockups in Kentucky.

Even that lengthy incarceration didn’t put Criss on the right path. He was arrested again and was ordered back to jail. But this time, a judge, perhaps seeing that even more jail time would do no good, ordered Criss into treatment, and he found his way to Life Learning Center in Covington.

Life Learning Center offers help and hope for people in poverty and those with histories of addicton, mental illness and abuse. One of the ways it does that is through collaborating with a statewide program to help people like Adam Criss get a second, even a third chance at building a life. That’s how Criss found a job at a Hebron company called Close the Loop, where he started in January.

“I wasn’t very hopeful of finding a job that I liked,” he says.

But Close the Loop has made a corporate commitment to give people who need it another chance.

Over the last year, the company has hired 42 people through Life Learning Center and the second-chance hiring project run by the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program.

Adam Fargo covers eight Northern Kentucky counties for EKCEP, which, despite its geographic name, is now a statewide effort. It was started in Hazard, Ky., coal country, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when the mines began closing and out-of-work coal miners needed help getting trained in new skills and finding jobs.

Then opioid addiction began taking its toll on the state.

“When the opioid crisis hit this area, we saw another opportunity to work with individuals as they started coming out of recovery centers and correctional institutions,” says Fargo.

That coincided with the pre-pandemic tight labor market, unemployment rates below 4% and the difficulty of manufacturers and other employers like Close the Loop to find people ready to show up every day ready to do physically demanding work.

In 2019, its first year, the program assisted 1,546 people statewide, says Melissa Quillen, the project director for EKCEP.

In Northern Kentucky, Close the Loop has been the main employer collaborating with the program, although Fargo has also worked with Duro Bag and RDI, a call center operator.

“We were having challenges finding employees and competing with big employers like Amazon," says Tom Kelly, Close the Loop’s human resources manager.

In late 2019, he met Fargo, who said he had a ready supply of people who, while they may have strayed in the past, were ready to re-enter the workforce and try again.

It was an idea that fit nicely with CTL’s corporate philosophy. Close the Loop is a Melbourne, Australia-based company whose workers recycle ink and toner cartridges from printers, separating the plastics and metals, cleaning them and repackaging them. Big companies like HP, Xerox, and Staples employ Close the Loop to recover, recycle, and reuse the materials in printer cartridges.

Its operation in Hebron, where it employs about 100 people, is the only one it maintains in North America, and it is the largest of its three locations in the world.

With its participation in the second-chance hiring program, CTL has gone from recycling printer cartridges to recycling lives.

“We want to be a company that gives back to the community and gives back to the environment,” Kelly says.

“These employees really want a second chance,” Kelly says. “They really want to start changing their lives.”

Most of the 42 people CTL has hired have suffered through addiction and most have done time, Kelly says. Many of the women employees have had children removed from their custody and placed in foster care. Holding down a job is a way for them to show a judge that they are responsible adults and to regain custody of their kids.

The new hires work in CTL’s warehouse, checking in the materials that come in through the front door, unloading truckloads of cartridges onto conveyors, sorting materials, operating machines that grind down the plastics and metals, and driving forklifts.

While the program has resulted in a steady stream of workers, it has also come with challenges, Kelly says. The work can be repetitive and physically demanding, and some second-chance workers haven’t shown up every day.

Turnover has been high, as some have found better-paying jobs (they start at $13 an hour), or work that’s better suited to them.

But those are issues that many manufacturing workplaces have to deal with, especially with entry-level employees.

The need for able employees has persisted even after the emergence of the pandemic and the rise in unemployment, says Lee Crume, president and CEO of Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, the economic development company for the region. “Through our business retention and expansion outreach program, we know the hiring demands of manufacturers in Northern Kentucky have not been diminished by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he says.

He expects more companies in the region will turn to the program and others like it to meet their workforce needs, “I’m impressed with Close the Loop’s transformational hiring program,” he says.

There’s risk in hiring those with histories of addiction, but someone who has hit bottom and is ready to start to grow again is likely to be a faithful employee, Fargo says.

“People who are in recovery are more likely to be that loyal employee that you’re looking for because somebody was willing to take a chance on them,” he says.

“When someone gives them a second chance, their mindset changes, and it helps them continue down that path of recovery.”

That’s been true for Criss, who drives the 60 miles from his home in Cynthiana every day to work the second shift at CTL. He was getting nowhere trying to find steady employment through temporary employment services.

“I’ve got kids and bills and car payments and dogs,” he says. “I was just at a standstill.”

Now, he’s moving, having been promoted at Close the Loop in less than a year. And it’s been more than a job for him.

“They actually gave me an opportunity to thrive,” he says.




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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is the managing editor of NKY Thrives, an award-winning journalist, and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading or watching classic movies.