Since he opened his restaurant in Kansas City’s Crossroads District six years ago, Anton Kotar has hired two dozen people with felony convictions.
He’s proud of that fact. But it also makes him nervous.
An inspection by government liquor control regulators is a nerve-wracking experience, Kotar admits. State law forbids those with a felony from participating in the sale of alcohol or lottery tickets.
So at Anton’s Taproom, where Kotar often hires felons as dishwashers earning $14 to $16 an hour, he has to scramble to make sure they don’t go near the bar to get dirty dishes or clear off tables where there is still alcohol in a glass.
And the law limits what jobs he can hire them to do beyond washing dishes.
“We’re working with churches and homeless shelters, people who are trying to put together programs teaching culinary skills,” he said. “Problem is, I can’t hire them. Until the law changes, I have to be leery and have to be cognizant of where these guys are in the building so we aren’t in violation.”
Kotar traveled to Jefferson City earlier this month to testify for legislation that aims to change that.
“Being convicted of a felony shouldn’t automatically disqualify someone from an entry-level job, especially when they’ve served their time and are trying to find ways to begin the process of reentry into society,” said Sen. Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican sponsoring the legislation. It passed out of committee on Monday.
Jennifer Bukowsky, a criminal defense attorney in Columbia, brought the issue to Rowden’s attention after watching for years as the law created a stumbling block for people trying to turn their lives around.
People serve their time but find themselves locked out of jobs like those at gas stations and convenient stores, she said, because they aren’t allowed to sell lottery tickets.
“Right now, the job opportunities for felons in Missouri are generally limited to construction and fast food,” Bukowsky said. “This legislation would immediately and materially expand the job openings for which these individuals may apply.”
Sara Baker, legislative and policy director for the ACLU of Missouri, said the legislation was “about giving people a second chance.”
“Missouri should be a place where you can get a second chance,” she said, “and justice should be restorative.”
It’s already won bipartisan support, with Sen. Kiki Curls, a Kansas City Democrat, signing on as co-sponsor in the Senate. The House version of the bill is sponsored by two Republicans from Boone County and Rep. Bruce Franks, a St. Louis Democrat.
It’s also won buy-in from the Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association, which sees the current law as an impediment to finding employees.
“My members hire and employ many thousands of people across the state of Missouri,” said Ron Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association. “This increases the applicant pool without subjecting employers to any hiring mandates, quotas or any liability.”
Working in the dish pit is not easy, Kotar said. In his restaurant, they are the only employees who have to run up and down the building’s three flights of stairs. They leave work soaking wet, often late at night.
“It’s a hard job,” he said, “but they’re able to make a good living doing it.”
He’s had no worse luck finding good employees who are felons than any other workers, he said.
In fact, he’s probably had better luck.
When he hires college students, he said, many just suddenly stop showing up. The people he has hired with felony records are some of his hardest workers, he said, because “they don’t want to go back to where they came from. They want to be here.”
Kotar told lawmakers the ban on felons selling liquor or lottery tickets is “a crazy law, in my opinion.”
“Who among us,” he said, “has not done something that we wish we could take back?”