Past Mistakes Haunt Builder Trying to Find Work

Michigan’s occupational licensure mandate can permanently impair those with criminal records

Mike Grennan makes no excuses. He messed up. Again, and again, and again. He admits it, acknowledges it, and doesn’t defend it. But he’s still looking for a shot – another chance.

His dream is to be a licensed skilled tradesman. The problem? The job he wants to do requires a state license. And like most states, Michigan restricts people with a criminal background from obtaining a license. About 70 percent of Michigan’s licensed occupations – including tradesman – require a person to be of “good moral character,” the tendency “to serve the public in the licensed area in a fair, honest, and open manner.” In practice, people with a criminal record, especially felonies, find it very difficult to gain an occupational license.

“The state's moral character requirement is a hindrance for someone like myself who wants to be an independent roofing/remodeling professional,” Grennan said. “According to the law, I can work in a variety of fields and interact with people as long as it doesn’t require a builder’s license – but once it does, I’m not allowed to work. I’ve spent a lot of hard-working hours to perfect my skill set and if you were to ask my past customers, contractors, employers, and co-workers, they would all testify to my expertise and integrity. It should be my right to be legally in business for myself.”

He’s got the experience. The 45-year-old has decades of contracting work: His first roofing job was in 1989, and he started Grennan Construction with his father, Phil, in the late 1990s. But a short time later, Mike was in prison for drug possession.

His brother Fred runs the company today, which specializes in roofs, gutters, siding, windows and insulation. Fred was a bartender in Pontiac when the company started. After the bar closed, he went to work for the company. His first day involved picking up Mike and driving him to work because he had no transportation. After Mike was sent to prison for seven years, Fred learned the family business from him over the phone.

“After Mike got out, he came back to work for me,” Fred said. But while few would questions Mike’s contracting qualifications, his criminal background is extensive, and it prevents him from becoming a licensed tradesman.

That means he’s stuck as a lower-level handyman, limiting him to working for someone else. State law allows people in Mike’s line of work to do so without a license, but only as long as the project is less than $600. Senate Bill 340, sponsored by Sen. Margaret O'Brien, R-Portage, would raise that threshold to $3,000. It has not moved out of committee.

State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said he would not approve allowing someone with the criminal past such as Grennan’s into people’s homes.

“As a former police officer and sheriff for 31 years, I believe a man with that record has no business going into citizen’s homes and working on their homes,” Jones said. “You don’t know if he is going to be assaulting or he is going to steal. You don’t know if he is going to do that. To hang out there and he is a skill tradesman and allow him to go into some senior citizen’s home and possibly victimize them, absolutely no way.”

Jones said he wouldn’t have a problem if someone with Grennan’s criminal record went to work for a construction company and was not going into homes.

“If they want to hire him, I think that’s fine,” Jones said. “But with that record, I certainly can’t support him hanging his shingle out there and coming into your home. This man has been given many, many chances.”

Tim Shepard is a landlord developer in the Detroit area. He owns the Ryker Building in Pontiac and Mike has worked for him on a variety of projects.

“He’s a really good roofer. Everything he’s done for me has been great,” Shepard said. “I’ve got a 10-story building in downtown Pontiac that he’s helped with. Does a good job managing crews and people.”

Shepard owns a few “three-quarters” houses – places where people with a criminal record pay rent to live. Mike has lived at those with other guys on parole. Shepard says substance abuse and bad life choices are a huge problem, but state laws make things worse.

“I’ve watched guys with real talent who can’t get a real job,” Sheppard said. “We deal with these guys all the time, who are great with skilled trades or really anything. They can’t work anything but nonskill jobs like Burger King or McDonald’s. … They end up recommitting a crime or feel [bad] about themselves and go back to their old habits.”

“Mike’s problems in the past are because of substance abuse. But it’s hard to stay away from that, especially if he can’t find good work,” he added.

Grennan spent time in prison from 1999 to 2006 for theft, receiving stolen property and fleeing a crime. After being discharged, he later was convicted of assault after stealing a car and bumping a police officer with it while attempting to flee.

The conviction sent him back to prison in 2007 for four more years. That is the lone violent crime on his record. But after he got out in 2011, he pleaded guilty to breaking and entering as well as receiving stolen property. He’s currently on probation.

Grennan says much of his criminal background stems from drug addition. But he is clean today, he says. He checks in regularly with a probation officer and is subject to drug and alcohol testing, which will continue for most of the rest of his life. Michigan Rehabilitation Services helps him with the challenges of returning to society, and he serves as a volunteer at the Blue Water Recovery and Outreach Center, a nonprofit that helps people live a life of sobriety.

Grennan is enrolled at St. Clair Community College, taking business classes. He hopes he can realize his dream of being a licensed contractor, owning and running his own business, and putting those skills to work.

“All of the crimes I have served time for are directly related to a history of drug addiction,” Grennan said. “Mostly they involve desperate acts of stealing to support the high cost of black market-illicit drugs. Things like shoplifting, stealing valuables from unlocked vehicles, and once, in the early hours of a dark morning at a closed gas station, I smashed a window in an attempt to steal cigarettes and beer.”

It’s hard to see how restricting people with a criminal record protects public safety. For example, while Grennan can be denied a license, he still can work for someone else and gain access to someone’s home. Or he can simply work in an area that doesn’t require a license – like doing drywall work, window cleaning, or paving. The occupations in Michigan which are licensed are somewhat arbitrary.

Many people like Grennan run into these obstacles and give up on legal work. They either work in an area where they need a license and get caught, which adds to their criminal record or – more typically – pursue other illegal activities. According to Stephen Slivinski of Arizona State University, occupational licensing laws are directly linked to criminal recidivism. States with a high number of regulations see three-and-a-half times as many people re-offending and heading back to prison.

There’s a balance here. According to Lee McGrath, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm, it may make sense for states to not license people for careers directly related to their criminal activity. Examples include citizens with multiple drunk driving arrests trying to become truck drivers or those convicted of crimes against children wanting to work in day care centers.

“Occupational licensing should be a policy of last resort,” McGrath said. “Before restricting the right to earn an honest living, lawmakers should demand substantial, empirical proof of widespread and significant harm, and then select the least restrictive alternative regulation best targeted to address it.”

Some other states, such as Minnesota, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, have few or no blanket bans on ex-offenders seeking work and don’t take low-level crimes into account when granting occupational licenses. They also give individuals with a criminal record a chance to appeal any denial. Illinois, Kentucky and Georgia have recently passed laws to allow more people to work regardless of criminal background.

“America is the land of second chances,” McGrath added. “Those with a criminal record who aspire to re-enter the workforce already have paid back society for their mistakes. No one’s past should burden their future the way licensing too often does in Michigan and other states.”

The question for state lawmakers is simple: How long should Mike pay?

“Every choice I make is written in the book of my life,” Grennan said. “The residue of [my past mistakes] has taught me a lesson. I hope to be defined not by the worst of my choices, but by the totality of my being. …This is for the betterment of myself, my family, and my community. I believe it is my unalienable right – within the boundaries of the Constitution – to pursue life, liberty and happiness.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.