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During economic collapse, business owners with criminal records are haunted by their past

American businesses suffering through the pandemic’s economic fallout have received hundreds of billions of dollars in federal loans since the Paycheck Protection Program opened this spring. But accessing that funding was challenging for business owners with criminal records. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports as part of our new series, Searching for Justice.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Businesses hit by the pandemic have received hundreds of billions of dollars in loans since the Paycheck Protection Program opened for applications about four months ago.

    But, as our economics correspondent Paul Solman discovered, accessing that funding has been a challenge for business owners with a criminal record.

    This report is part of our new series, Searching For Justice.

  • Quan Huynh:

    I went to prison for a murder.

  • Sharon Richardson:

    I was charged with murder in the second degree. I was charged with killing my abuser.

  • Dontae Thomas:

    I was incarcerated for selling crack cocaine.

  • Paul Solman:

    Meet Quan Huynh, Sharon Richardson and Dontae Thomas, among them, more than four decades behind bars, but since coming home, successful entrepreneurs.

    Dontae Thomas runs a one-man personal training business in New Jersey, begun, in a sense, with fellow inmates during his 11-year stint.

  • Dontae Thomas:

    I would train them for a dollar a day in there, and that's how I got good. I started learning more about the body. So I learned more about nutrition, supplements.

    So, I'm like, all right, I get good at my craft. I can utilize this when I go home. So, every day I would just study for 12, 16 hours a day.

  • Paul Solman:

    Released in 2017, Thomas' Team Chizel built up to almost 40 clients. Quan Huynh, in for 16 years, began working on the cleaning crew at the prison hospital.

  • Quan Huynh:

    So, I knew about sanitizing. I know about cleaning. I know about blood-borne pathogens. So it just gave me an extra eye for detail.

    Six months after I had been home, I saw an opportunity of a building that needed a cleaning company. And I just created a company and got the e-mail of the building owner and e-mailed him. And that was when we got our first contract.

  • Paul Solman:

    His Jade Janitors in Anaheim, California, cleans office buildings, TV studios, and restaurants. His main labor pool, ex-convicts.

    Same for Sharon Richardson, who launched Just Soul Catering in New York after she came out.

  • Sharon Richardson:

    We hire, you know, women to come and actually work with us so that they don't have to feel that stigma or feel judged about being incarcerated. That's not something that I ask.

    I just need to know, can you cook? Are you friendly? Can you work with a smile? Do you love people? Do you love food?

  • Paul Solman:

    Actually, Richardson and Huynh think those who've done hard time become better workers.

  • Sharon Richardson:

    Formerly incarcerated people just come with a passion. And the reason why we come with a passion is because we just want to be accepted.

  • Quan Huynh:

    They're resourceful. They're loyal. They're go-getters. They go the extra mile to work. I mean, the vast majority of them are just looking for a second chance.

  • Paul Solman:

    Moreover, says Dontae Thomas, a lot of convicted felons have serious business skills, however ill-gotten, like what he learned dealing crack.

  • Dontae Thomas:

    It was illegal. It was wrong. But it taught me how to actually be a businessman today. It taught me actual numbers. I had to deal with numbers. I had to deal — with, basically, like, I'm employing people, because the way — what I was doing in the streets myself was like I almost had employees working for me.

  • Paul Solman:

    OK, so we have got felons who turned their sword skills into profitable ploughshares, hire ex-cons, whose unemployment rate is seven times the average.

    They're thriving entrepreneurs who actually seem rehabilitated. And then along came COVID. The pandemic cost Thomas most of his clients. Huynh laid off four workers. Richardson's income plummeted.

    And so, like hundreds of thousands of others, they turned to the paycheck protection program, or PPP, part of the government's stimulus package. There was one not-small problem. The Small Business Administration's PPP form asked about applicants' criminal status.

    Facing charges? On probation or parole? Convicted or pleaded guilty to a felony in the past five years? It even asked about pre-trial diversion. If the answer was yes to any of these questions, SBA application denied.

  • Dontae Thomas:

    It's like, oh. Then you're like, oh, that's where the heart drops and you're, like, well, that don't apply to me.

  • Quan Huynh:

    Right when I clicked yes, the computer just grayed out. I couldn't hit next. And I realized, OK, that means I don't qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program.

  • Paul Solman:

    Were you surprised?

  • Quan Huynh:

    Yes, I was surprised. I was discouraged. I'm a small business owner. I built my company since I came home from prison. And my taxpaying dollars and those of my employees are helping to support other small businesses throughout this time. But why couldn't we qualify?

  • Paul Solman:

    Sharon Richardson applied for multiple loans.

  • Sharon Richardson:

    I never heard from them. And, to be honest, it did cross my mind, kind of like, you know, maybe I'm not hearing from them because they did a background check on me and realized that I'm a formerly incarcerated individual, and they're like, we're not giving this loan to her.

  • Paul Solman:

    Not to her, nor even to those facing just misdemeanor charges.

    Of course, not getting loans, or even jobs, has long been a barrier for ex-inmates. Literally, tens of thousands of laws in the U.S. still stand in their way. But a government program to revive the economy barred basically everyone in the criminal justice system?

  • Andrew Glazier:

    They have managed to start a business. They're making good. They're employing other people.

  • Paul Solman:

    Andrew Glazier run Defy Ventures, a post-prison entrepreneurship program.

  • Andrew Glazier:

    Why does it make sense for us to prevent them from getting the same aid as every other small business owner? This is somebody who is paying taxes, paying wages.

  • Paul Solman:

    Helping keep the economy afloat.

    In June, the SBA changed the application language, once after lawmaker criticism, and then again after Defy Ventures, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the government.

    Now the application only asks about current felony charges and besides certain financial crimes, about felony convictions, guilty pleas and parole or probation going back just one year.

  • Andrew Glazier:

    I don't know how they came up with that to be the rules. I just have no idea. And, frankly, they obviously had no idea either because they changed it as soon as it was challenged.

  • Paul Solman:

    Why the restrictions in the first place?

    We asked the SBA. A spokesman declined comment.

    But, for Sharon Richardson, the application change was vital. She reapplied and got her loan. She's been cooking for essential workers, hospitals and needy residents in New York ever since.

    Quan Huynh also successfully reapplied. He offered four former employees their jobs back. Two returned, both ex-inmates. He's pivoted to sanitization against COVID, and his business has now actually grown. Dontae Thomas has tried everything.

  • Dontae Thomas:

    We ain't giving up. No excuses.

  • Paul Solman:

    Facebook and Zoom training, even selling Team Chizel apparel. And what about his PPP application?

  • Dontae Thomas:

    I haven't even looked back into it. It discouraged me from even trying to file for it, to tell you the truth. Every time you go back, you know, you think you get a second chance, but it's always what you did in the past that keep coming up.

  • Paul Solman:

    It turned out he had no idea the application had changed.

    Let me be the first to tell you, you should reapply, because they have changed the rules.

  • Dontae Thomas:

    OK, so I will definitely look into that now.

  • Paul Solman:

    And maybe he, too, will be back in business.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Paul Solman.

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