There’s a lot of news about millions of job vacancies around the U.S. But for U.S. Rubber Recycling, that’s not an issue. The Colton, Calif.-based company, which diverts worn tires from landfills and turns them into rubber flooring for gyms and other places, runs a hiring program for formerly incarcerated people, who comprise about 50% of the firm’s workforce. That’s also really helped during a time when the company has experienced a hefty increase in demand.
“Our workforce hasn’t fueled our growth,” says President and CEO Jeff Baldassari. “But it’s certainly helped support it.”
Baldassari joined U.S. Rubber in 2019 as general manager, becoming president and CEO about a year later. The company, which was started in 1996, buys material from granulators that turn discarded tires into recycled crumb rubber; it uses the stuff to make sports flooring, acoustical underlayment and other products.
The company started hiring formerly incarcerated people around 2000, initially, says Baldassari, “out of necessity.” The Inland Empire, an area of Southern California adjacent to Los Angeles and home to many distribution centers, needed workers and the region has a significant population of formerly incarcerated, according to Baldassari. So, the company started hiring such folks.
But looking to grow the company after he took over in 2020, Baldassari decided to step up the hiring and training of people with a criminal record with a new and improved program. Called Bounce Back!, it takes what Baldassari calls a “holistic” approach based on the idea that, “Economic stability is at the core of anyone’s success in life,” he says.
One such hire is Carlos Arceo, who started work in 2019, after spending six months in a half-way house, following eight years in prison. (His sentence was reduced from ten years). He started out as a machine operator; after multiple promotions, he’s now a second shift manager. The paycheck and job security have allowed him to afford a two-bedroom apartment for his wife, two daughters and six-month-old son. “This was the first job I really had, so I had no experience at all,” he says. “But I did my best.”
A few key precepts underlie the Bounce Back! approach. One is the need to create a support system. “You can control what goes on in your building for eight hours,” Baldassari says. “But you have to help your workers deal with all those other hours when they’re outside of the workplace. ”
To that end, this year, he brought in a psychiatric rehabilitation counselor to help employees handle day-to-day issues like handling relationships or basic skills like setting up a checking account. She comes in once a week for in-person sessions and works with employees over the phone on other days. All hires, not just formerly incarcerated ones, can meet with her. Typically, they schedule appointments for before or after one of their shifts.
Another pillar of the program is to make sure to create a non-judgmental environment. Working with halfway houses and county agencies that recommend potential employees—the company doesn’t hire those convicted of murder, rape or kidnapping, according to Baldassari—they use an approach called appreciative inquiry, an organizational and leadership development philosophy emphasizing mutual respect and making sure everyone has an equal voice. That’s in part, says Baldassari, “To teach people to become team players,”—something which doesn’t come naturally to many formerly incarcerated people who’ve had to spend years tending to their own survival.
The new hires have been essential to the company’s recent growth. Over the last 14 months, sales have doubled, according to Baldassari, and the employment base has increased by 80%. Last year, the company diverted about 9 million pounds of tires headed for landfills. This year, it’s on track to hit 15 million. Baldassari attributes that growth to a new online partnership with Home Depot, plus sales to professionals and a spike in orders from home-bound consumers looking to create their own home gyms.