More than 10 years ago, entrepreneurs Dan Meyer and Richard Palmer started Nehemiah Manufacturing in Over-the-Rhine, naming it after the biblical leader who rebuilt the city of Jerusalem in the Old Testament days.

Their new business of packaging and distributing hand soap, wipes, dryer sheets and other consumer goods would employ those who needed a second chance in life and would help rebuild Cincinnati’s inner city.

Their mission was successful and by 2015 they were ready to spread the word and grow it. They started the Beacon of Hope Business Alliance as a way to encourage more businesses to employ people who find it difficult to find a job because they may have prison records, are recovering from addiction or have experienced homelessness.

The Alliance grew so quickly, with so many businesses signing on to the idea, that Meyer and Palmer began looking for help to manage it. Late last year, Cincinnati Works assumed operations of the Beacon of Hope Business Alliance as another part of its mission to end the cycles of poverty by helping the hard-to-employ find work.

The Alliance now has about 80 employers participating or supporting the work, says Matt Mooney, vice president of workforce connection at Cincinnati Works.

About 60 of them have hired at least one hard-to-employ worker, he says, and about 500 people have found work through the program. Cincinnati Works wants to keep expanding the program, he says.

“We’ve got ambitions to grow that even more because the need is out there,” he says.

The need for work multiplied exponentially almost overnight when the economy virtually shut down because of the spread of the coronavirus.

In January, the unemployment rate was below 4%, the traditional marker of “full employment.” For years, businesses had been reporting difficulty finding help and Cincinnati Works was there to train and place second-chance workers at companies that may have been desperate for help.

But from January to April, about 20 million Americans lost their jobs and the unemployment rate approached 15% in April and is expected to keep climbing.

“There may be this perception that with all the layoffs and furloughs that are happening out there that the labor market has flipped,” Mooney says. “So one thing we are focusing on is to maintain the momentum that we’ve built up over the last three to five years.”

Cincinnati Works provides a suite of services to employers who want to hire second-chance workers. His team can help front-line managers and the rest of the workforce buy in to the idea so that second-chance workers can succeed and contribute.

The training is designed to achieve “top to bottom” buy in for the concept throughout the organization, he says.

“How does managing and supervising those individuals differ from what someone from a middle-class background or even an upper-class background might experience?” Mooney says. “What assumptions or implicit bias is there that we can shine a light on?

“That needs to cascade down all the way through the organization.”

Despite the dramatic downturn in employment, the community still benefits from hiring those who may have taken a wrong turn in their lives, he says.

“People with criminal records are just as qualified for jobs as they were before,” Mooney says. “The social imperative around inclusive hiring—we need to make sure that continues.”