CreditRichard Perry/The New York Times
Mr. Mirsky, 43, made a six-figure annual salary as a phone line technician in the decade before he lost his job in July 2012. He was fired after clashing repeatedly with a supervisor. The company declined to comment.
He spent a few months searching for a new job in his old industry, but there are not a lot of other companies in central New Jersey hiring people to repair copper phone lines. So in January 2013 he trained at a local community college as a heating and air-conditioning specialist. After graduating in December 2013, he was offered a chance to join the Pipefitters Union.
In the meantime, however, he was living on savings and gifts from friends. A woman from his church delivered occasional meals; a friend tucked $50 into a Thanksgiving card; another man hired him to unload a truck at his restaurant. He lived in a basement apartment in an old house in Port Murray, N.J., he bought in better days, beneath the ruins of his ambitious renovation plans. When I visited in January, the winter wind whistled through the broken windows and unfinished walls upstairs. Animal droppings speckled the floors. A stainless steel range and refrigerator sat in their original shrink-wrap. He had not paid his mortgage in three years and he was battling to prevent, or at least delay, foreclosure.
He also fell behind on child support payments, and under New Jersey law a warrant was automatically issued for his arrest. He says he knew nothing about it until police came to his home in June 2014. According to the police report, Mr. Mirksy struggled, and the officers knocked him down, handcuffed him and charged him with resisting arrest.
It was the first time that Mr. Mirsky had ever been arrested. A few months later, he pleaded guilty to a single felony. The immediate penalty was just $411 in court costs. The enduring problem is that he has a criminal record.
The Pipefitters Union had arranged a series of job interviews for him in May, June and August 2014. He also submitted about 30 applications to other employers last year, and received a couple of interviews, but no offers.
He is convinced nothing has panned out because of his legal troubles — the warrant, the arrest and the conviction.
“I’m 43 years old, not recently employed, and that doesn’t look great,” he said. “But mostly they don’t want the heartache.”
Of course, people rarely find out why they didn’t land a particular job. For the last several years, job applicants have vastly outnumbered job openings. Being fired from a previous job doesn’t help. And the issues that land people in legal trouble may also make them less attractive as applicants. But Ms. Pager, the Harvard sociologist, has found in her research that having a criminal record by itself is often a significant impediment.
In 2001, Ms. Pager sent pairs of black men and white men to apply for low-wage jobs at 350 businesses in the Milwaukee area. She picked sets of men who looked alike and were comparably well spoken and she gave them similar résumés — education, employment history — except that one member of each pair was told to claim that he had served 18 months in prison for a felony drug conviction.
She repeated the experiment in New York in 2004, sending pairs of “well-spoken, clean-shaven young men” to apply for 250 different jobs.
In both cases, she found men who reported criminal convictions were about 50 percent less likely to receive a callback or a job offer. The difference was significantly larger in the black pairs than in the white pairs. White employers seemed to show more sympathy for the white applicants, Ms. Pager said, and most of the employers were white.
Employers seemed to use the reported convictions as “a proxy for reliability and trustworthiness and a broader range of concerns beyond simply whether they would be aggressive,” she said. “Faced with a large number of applicants, this was one easy way of weeding out applicants.”
To be continued