(p. B1) CINCINNATI—While some companies try to attract and keep employees with yoga classes and lavish cafeterias, Nehemiah Manufacturing Co.’s perks include a social-service team and an attorney.
When two consumer-product veterans started Nehemiah a decade ago, their idea was to create more opportunities in a struggling part of Cincinnati. Increasingly, that meant hiring people who had a particularly hard time finding jobs: those with criminal backgrounds.
Now, workers with criminal records make up around 80% of the company’s about 180 employees—and Nehemiah has learned that offering a job to people trying to turn their lives around is just half the battle.
“We are investing in our employees in order to retain them,” said Richard Palmer, president of Nehemiah, whose brands include Boogie Wipes, Saline Soothers and other consumer products. “It’s no different than tech companies bringing in lunch and a foosball table.”
In one of the tightest labor markets in decades, more employers are willing to give ex-convicts a chance, trying to marry business needs and good intentions. Even large American companies are rethinking whether their responsibilities extend beyond their shareholders. JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive James Dimon said in October  that the bank would step up efforts to recruit people with criminal backgrounds.
Hiring people with a criminal past can pay big dividends for companies, such as closer community ties and a loyal workforce. But keeping them on the job can be a struggle.
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(p. B6) Since its first days, Nehemiah has become more deliberate about identifying candidates who are likely to be good, reliable employees and has developed a more formal system for providing them with support.
Today, Nehemiah’s annual turnover stands at roughly 15%, well below the 38.5% average for consumer-products companies, as reported by Mercer’s 2019 U.S. Turnover Survey. Nehemiah says it had operating income of $5.7 million on sales of $59.4 million in 2018.
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“We found that the population we were hiring who had criminal backgrounds were our most loyal people,” said Mr. Palmer. “When we were looking for people to work overtime, come in on Saturday or go that extra mile, it was the second-chance population that was saying, ‘I’m in.’”
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At Nehemiah, having a criminal past carries less of a stigma because so many workers have been incarcerated.
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. . ., Nehemiah’s approach . . . means it can spot potential other employers might overlook. When Rayshun Holt came to Nehemiah roughly two years ago, Ms. Merida said he immediately stood out as someone the company wanted.
Mr. Holt, 40, spent two decades in prison after fatally shooting a friend when he was 15 during what he describes as a scuffle over a gun. While in prison, Mr. Holt reconnected to his faith, started taking classes and began coaching other prisoners on how to turn their lives around.
Released in 2016 with $96 in his pocket, he said, “I was filled with hope and overwhelmed by fear.” His first job was in a fast-food restaurant specializing in chicken fingers. “I was the oldest person there and the most enthusiastic. It was the first time in my life I was earning an honest check,” he said.
But he struggled to find steady work with decent pay. Nehemiah hired him as a second-shift supervisor at $19 an hour.
Ms. Merida said she was impressed by Mr. Holt’s passion, humility and sincerity when he told his life story, how he knew the streets but had already taken steps to turn his life around. “I knew this was a born leader who could really have a profound impact on our employees,” said Ms. Merida. “He could show them that no matter how bad it is, your life isn’t over.”
Mr. Holt now works as the company’s commercialization coordinator, responsible for taking new products and product improvements from concept to market.
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