This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.
Luis Rivera had some peace of mind for about five months, from late fall of 2010 through early spring of the following year. That’s the closest thing he’s seen to financial stability in more than twenty years.
“I got hired for a wonderful job. It was a clerk/porter/doorman position at a high-rise classical building in the East Village,” he recalls wistfully. Rivera, 44, has a wife of twenty-five years and three teenage daughters. They live up in East Harlem, where the Puerto Rican–born New Yorker grew up and has spent much of his life. He’s ferociously proud of his marriage and children; his back straightens and his tone turns serious when he talks about his family, like a man who’s managed to achieve something he’s been told he can’t accomplish. Yet looking back on those five months as a jack-of-all-services for wealthy downtown hipsters, Rivera still gets excited about an opportunity that tore him away from home at all hours.
“When they needed somebody, they would call me in the middle of the night and I would say, ‘Yes!’ Because I needed a job. And the pay was excellent,” he brags, pointing to his $17 hourly wage for part-time work. “I was next to be hired in a position there permanently.”
The new position held promise that Rivera could finally work just one legit job—on the books, with steady hours and a steady paycheck—rather than hustling to piece together part-time informal work, as he’s done his entire adult life. But that promise hadn’t yet been realized. He was still at the mercy of his employer’s whims. If they called, he worked; if not, he didn’t. So when the superintendent of a building across the street mentioned that his crew was looking for part-time help as well, Rivera put in his name. While applying, he was honest to a fault.
“I made the mistake of trusting,” Rivera says now, shrugging. “I explained to this guy that I have a record from 1990-something. But I explained that I paid the price. I’m clean—gimme a chance. He gave me his word of honor that he would not tell.” But word travels fast when you’re an ex-con. Suddenly, the upscale building at which Rivera hoped to build a future stopped giving him shifts at all.
“So I made a phone call and asked to speak to them,” he explains. He says his boss told him, “We found out you have a record. And you can’t work here, due to the fact that this is a fancy place—anything could happen.”
At age 22, Rivera says, he committed a burglary in the Bronx. He was a lousy criminal and soon got caught. The judge didn’t make him serve any time, just released him to his parents’ custody and gave him five years of probation. Within two years, he’d earned release from probation as well. But the conviction has nonetheless stalked him ever since. “Twenty years later, it’s still there.”