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Why Giant Food’s search for workers took it to a local prison

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JESSUP, Maryland — Like his colleagues at Giant Food’s sprawling fresh food distribution center here, Vonnell Davis spends his days zooming around on a pallet jack assembling goods for the grocery chain’s stores. But while other associates at the refrigerated warehouse have always been free to go home at the end of their shift, Davis, until early last year, had to head back to prison.

That constraint didn’t stop Davis, who joined Giant while still incarcerated through an arrangement between the retailer and a correctional center a few miles from the warehouse, from pouring his energy into his job as an order selector. In fact, Davis has stood out for his dedication to a demanding role that often turns people away, said Brandi Petway, HR facility lead at the warehouse — underscoring the value to Giant of the work release program it launched with the Dorsey Run Correctional Center in mid-2022 to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic-driven labor shortage that has beset the retail sector.

“It’s a really intense job. It’s very physical, but not only that, they’re working in the cold all day long,” Petway said about Davis and other order selectors at the distribution center. “There are plenty of people that we interview that say, ‘I got it, I can do it.’ They pass a lift test, we put them through, and they don’t make it through the first week.”

Vonnell Davis

Sam Silverstein/Grocery Dive

 

Davis said he doesn’t mind the chilly conditions in the distribution center, adding that he is especially proud of his position because of the role he plays in keeping Giant stores stocked with fresh food. Located about midway between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, the 500,000-square-foot fresh food facility serves all of Giant’s 165 locations.

“I like moving fast [and] it’s cold in there, but I’m dressed like I’m jogging. The faster you move, you sweat, you get to exercise and you don’t even feel the cold. I just like working in that,” Davis said. “I like knowing that if I drive past a Giant in Dundalk or if I drive past a Giant in Baltimore City, I know I put something in there.”

Since Giant launched its initiative to bring Dorsey Run inmates onto its payroll, known as the Second Chance Program, the retailer has hired about 30 inmates at the correctional center, Petway said. That number includes people who are currently incarcerated as well as employees who, like Davis, have completed their sentences but still work at the warehouse.

Workers who participate in the program can have no more than 18 months left to serve in prison and must have prior work experience, such as handling kitchen duties at Dorsey Run, to be eligible. They also need a high school diploma or proof that they are working toward such a certification.

People who join Giant though the Second Chance Program receive the same pay and benefits as other associates and are unionized, Petway said, adding that the Ahold Delhaize-owned company’s goal is to convert workers to permanent status, typically within a year and a half after they start.

The program has proved effective in helping Giant reduce its reliance on third-party staffing companies, which can charge twice as much per worker as the retailer spends on workers it directly employs, according to Petway, a 26-year Giant veteran who proposed the initiative to the company’s leadership after arriving at the fresh food facility in 2022. Giant also sees the program as a way to demonstrate its commitment to the neighborhoods where it does business, she said.

“This is something obviously that we feel will help us but will also help the community,” Petway said. “It’s bringing people back into the workforce, which is something that is talked about widely.”

 Person sitting at a desk

Brandi Petway, HR facility lead for Giant Food, in her office at the grocery chain’s fresh food distribution center in Jessup, Maryland.

Sam Silverstein/Grocery Dive

 

A careful selection process

While she is intent on providing people with jobs as they look to pivot away from life behind bars, Petway emphasized that she is selective about which applicants she allows into the Second Chance Program.

“It’s no different than interviewing several candidates for any type of role within the company. Some are a good fit, and some just aren’t. And so I can’t bring everybody. If I feel like it’s just not going to be a good fit, then I don’t, because I still have to think about the company,” she said.

Petway doesn’t mince words in making clear to people she admits to the program that they have to follow the rules in order to stay.

“I tell them straight out when they come, ‘Listen, don’t do anything to jeopardize the program because the difference between [other] people that work here and you is they go home at night and you don’t. And so you do one thing wrong. It could put your freedom in jeopardy, and that’s not what you want,’” said Petway, noting that if someone is removed from the program, they are unlikely to be allowed to return.

At the same time, Petway takes measures to help ensure that participants in the program feel welcome, including emphasizing to other employees that the fact that some of their co-workers might be serving a prison sentence doesn’t mean they should be treated differently.

 Interior of warehouse

A view inside Giant Food’s fresh food distribution center.

Sam Silverstein/Grocery Dive

 

Davis, who began his position in July 2022 and was released from prison last March after serving five years of an eight-year sentence for robbery, credits the Second Chance Program with helping him put his past to rest and said he doesn’t take his job for granted.

“When Giant gave me this chance, I looked at it like, ‘Man, this is not even a job. This is a career,’” Davis said. “And I’m just like, ‘Man, I’m young, I’m 32, I can give Giant 20 years and be 50 and be cool and retire with a 401(k).’ So I was [grateful for] this whole opportunity.”

Nearly a year after leaving prison, Davis remains enthusiastic about his position at Giant and the structure it has brought to his life.

“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, it’s Monday morning, I’ve got to go in the office.’ But I’m happy to go to work. I come in on my off day sometimes. I actually like working. In life, you’ve got to work to get what you want and get what you need,” he said.

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