AUSTIN — Laid off from his downstate factory job this summer, Montineez Williams entered the Austin Town Hall for the Operation: Freedom job fair clad in a gray suit and an optimistic attitude.
Williams, 35, brought his résumé showing a work history that included a stint in the U.S. Army and jobs as a forklift operator, secretary and factory worker. What the document didn’t show, and what he’ll be required to explain on future job applications, is his 2006 conviction for felony criminal sexual assault. Williams, a father of six, maintains he was wrongfully convicted and that the incident was consensual.
“It’s depressing. It’s a stigma that’s put on me. I’m already at a disadvantage and [filling out job applications] reminds me of it constantly,” he said. “I’m the comeback kid, though.”
Hundreds of other job seekers arrived with similar stories, forming long lines for a crack at impressing their potential new employers.
Maribel Bahena works for a Skokie-based staffing agency that offers on-the-job training for factory and warehouse work. She said she gave most of the ex-cons who had lined up to speak with her the benefit of the doubt.
“It’s surprising to see some of the potential here,” she said.
Hosted by Living Word Christian Center, Thursday’s job fair was part of the ministry’s "We Care Re-entry program," made possible through a partnership with Gov. Pat Quinn's Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
"There are people out here that care about you, even though you’ve got challenges in your background," said Living Word Pastor Lonneil Watson.
Nearly 300 people attended the church's pre-registration workshops that offered tips on résumé building, mastering a job interview techniques and dressing for success, areas where, Watson said, jobseekers typically falter.
In the morning, so many people showed up at the fair without registering that organizers encouraged them to come back for a special second session in the afternoon.
Living Word volunteer Derrick Collins vetted participants, some of whom had to be turned away because they didn't have résumés.
“It’s been the hardest part of the fair. They’ve borrowed money to get here, gotten rides here and did the best they could. We receive them with dignity and let them go with dignity,” he said.
A few hours after leaving the fair, Williams said he was disappointed. He was expecting to be interviewed on the spot. Instead, he only dropped off a few résumés and shook a few hands.
“I did what I could do. I presented myself to be marketable and get hired. I’m hoping someone calls me,” he said. “You’ve got to position yourself for someone to help you and your family, despite the circumstances.”