Pottstown Companies Highlight Untapped Labor Pool: Second Chance Workers

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POTTSTOWN — America has a serious labor shortage, but it also has an untapped pool of labor that is ready and willing to work. You only need one chance – a second chance.

That was the main topic of discussion on Wednesday when US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo sat down to a round table with local, state and federal officials as well as workers and American Keg Co. management.

There they met Jonathan Adcock and Joe Yanelli, both trusted associates at American Keg, both of whom were hired despite having criminal convictions for drug use.

Adcock grew up in Allentown and “I made some bad decisions after my grandmother died.”

He ended up in a transitional home in Pottstown and was hired by American Keg, whose owners made a conscious decision to keep their minds and doors open to all types of job applicants.

Yanelli similarly broke the law over drug issues after losing his previous job when the company went bankrupt. “I came here from New Jersey six months ago. Before that I was in Miami and Las Vegas,” he told the roundtable.

Since then he has been trained at every station and can operate every production machine in the factory. “There isn’t a machine here that I can’t operate,” he said.

American Keg employees Joe Yanelli (front left) and Jonathan Adcock talk about the challenges they have faced and the opportunities that jobs at the company have offered them. (Evan Brandt – MediaNews Group)

Adcock, who benefited from a “12-tier grant program” and now runs one for American Keg workers who want to participate, said: “I didn’t know how to live on my own. I had to learn that feelings aren’t necessarily facts, and I had to learn to practice a lot of acceptance” as he navigated the challenges of finding and keeping a job and buying a car that didn’t throw his credit score off balance.

The hard work has paid off “and on June 10th I’m closing my first home,” he said.

Those who have given American Keg second chances “are some of our most valuable employees, and some of them hold the keys to the place,” said site manager Mike Habe.

The Second Chance employees they hired, says Paul Czachor, CEO of American Keg, “are very honest and open about what they bring to the table. And we kept getting good employees when we first came into contact with Pottstown Works,” a Pottstown agency that specializes in matching jobs with people who need to learn some basic skills to keep them.

“These people just need a chance, and they’re hungry,” Czachor said.

However, “this is not a social services agency,” said American keg owner Scott Bentley. “I bought this company to save jobs, and I found out pretty quickly that doing the right thing is also a smart thing to do.”

“It just takes a different mindset and an understanding that someone might need to go to a parole officer on a Friday,” said Jeffrey Abramowitz, executive director of Justice Partnerships, JEVS Human Services and chair of the Housing, Education, Employment, and Basic Needs practice Subcommittee of the Pennsylvania Reentry Council.

He said the prison system is failing people in prison by not training them in basic skills like how to use computers. “We don’t teach them how to use a computer and the first thing we do when they come out is tell them to go to a website and apply for a job,” he said. “The system doesn’t realize that it’s about more than just getting them a job. The problems they face don’t just go away when they get a job.”

Those who need a second chance can face difficulties as simple as transportation – getting to work can be a daily challenge.

“We spend $80 billion a year on a rehabilitation system that fails two-thirds of the time because so many end up back behind bars,” said Abramowitz, a former trial attorney in Philadelphia who also made some bad decisions after five years in federal prison and now advocates for better options for those who have been made redundant.

“We should do something as simple as give them an ID card, a social security card, all the things you need to get a job,” he said. The system needs to be more integrated between work, education and the prison system, he said. “They need to work together and stop working in their individual silos.”

“We’re all sitting around saying we can’t find workers, and we’re sitting on a talent pool that’s been right in front of us the whole time,” he said.

“In Pennsylvania, we do two things well: steel and beer,” said US Senator Bob Casey. “The Commonwealth is also at the forefront of criminal justice reform to break down barriers to re-entry into the workforce by passing important legislation like the Clean Slate Act,” he said, adding, “We have an opportunity,” this one Year to pass federal laws that mirror the state law passed in 2018 that has already deleted 40 million records.

“We have a criminal justice system where they charge you with all kinds of crimes,” Abramowitz said. “You may only be convicted of one charge, but all of those other charges stay on your record and follow you for the rest of your life.”

From left: American Keg owner Scott Bentley, CEO Paul Czachor, Rep. Joe Ciresi, Valerie Arkoosh, Chair of the Montgomery County Commissioners, U.S. Senator Bob Casey, U.S. Rep.  Madeline Dean, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and worker Emmanuel Lego during a tour of the Pottstown facility June 1.  (Submitted photo)
From left: American Keg owner Scott Bentley, CEO Paul Czachor, Rep. Joe Ciresi, Valerie Arkoosh, Chair of the Montgomery County Commissioners, U.S. Senator Bob Casey, U.S. Rep. Madeline Dean, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and worker Emmanuel Lego during a tour of the Pottstown facility June 1. (Submitted photo)

State Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-146th Dist., said Pennsylvania is currently sitting in a $9 billion surplus rather than investing in mental health and workforce training that could make it easier for those trying to get back into return to society.

“And let’s face it, Pennsylvania has a system where money counts. You have someone who is incarcerated for a white collar crime and will be released in three months. They had money when they went in and they have money when they came out, and they can afford to pay a lawyer to clean up their files,” Ciresi said. “And then you have these people trying to get their lives back on track, to find a job and a place to live. They don’t have thousands of dollars to pay a lawyer for three years to have their file cleaned up and they go right back into the system.”

U.S. Rep. Madeline Dean, D-4th Dist., also noted that the federal government has given at least $7 billion to the state “to help with education and mental health, but it didn’t happen. Don’t tell me you’re saving it for a rainy day. If that wasn’t two years of the rainiest days of our lives, then I don’t know what was.”

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