For some, a 1st-rate job is best 2nd chance

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PORTLAND, MAINE >> In early August, Mark Eason was released from the Charleston Correctional Facility in Maine, where he had served eight months for drug trafficking. Given that it wasn't his first felony incarceration, he knew his employment options would be limited.

The last time he had gotten out of prison, in 2005, the only work he was able to find was so low-paying that he couldn't support himself and his family. So he went back to selling heroin.

"I had to survive," he said. "If I have nothing, then I'm going to do what I know. And unfortunately, that's dealing drugs."

But his experience this time has been entirely different. Three days after emerging from prison, he was making $11 an hour loading trucks for a window company. It's a job he loves, and one he says he wouldn't have gotten without the Portland-based temporary employment agency MaineWorks.

All of MaineWorks' 70 workers have committed crimes "directly related or derivative of substance use disorder," said its founder and owner, Margo Walsh. The agency specializes in landscaping, industrial construction, and highway, bridge and road construction projects.

Knowing the struggle

Walsh also helped secure Eason a spot in a sober-living home, picked him up and drove him to work on his first day and is helping him get dentures to mask dental damage caused by years of drug use.

Walsh is a former recruiter for Goldman Sachs' investment banking division in New York, and for the human resources consulting firm Hewitt. She founded MaineWorks five years ago during a period of personal and financial hardship.

She had struggled with alcoholism, and she attended rehab in the late 1990s. She then moved with her family to Maine, where she began volunteering at a drug and alcohol clinic and at the county jail, giving talks about recovery.

In 2009, Walsh attended a local networking event that featured the lawyer F. Lee Bailey as a guest speaker. Bailey talked about the lack of job opportunities for convicted felons.

"Too many of these people get out, they hit a blind wall everywhere they turn, and they give up," Bailey said. "They say, 'Well, I guess I better go rob a bank or I'll go hungry, or more likely a 7-Eleven or a liquor store.'"

Bailey recalls that his speech highlighted a program in which businesspeople gave jobs to carefully chosen early-release convicts and mentored them while they got back on their feet. It had been particularly successful in Minneapolis, where, Bailey said, it was able to reduce the recidivism rate to 19 percent from 73 percent.

Walsh approached Bailey after the speech and asked how she could set up a similar program in Maine.

"Margo, no one will hire them," she recalled him saying. "That's why I'm here talking about it."

Bailey wasn't aware of any for-profit businesses that were fully devoted to this model, so Walsh decided she would fill the gap. But she had a problem: a lack of startup capital.

"I was a single mother, head of household, on MaineCare and SNAP benefits, which is food stamps," Walsh said. (MaineCare is the state's version of Medicaid.) "I had no assets, nothing," she said. "Not even a 401(k). I blew that all when I was drinking."

In the beginning, she worked out of her home to keep expenses low. She turned to her two sisters for help, each of whom lent her $2,000. And she secured a $2,500 asset-backed loan against her Subaru — money she used to make her first payroll.

'What do you need to move your life forward?'

Securing clients for MaineWorks turned out to be the easy part. Walsh credits changing attitudes toward addiction as part of the reason.

The MaineWorks business model differs from that of a traditional temporary employment agency in that it's not a day-labor company where workers line up in the morning, work during the day and get paid at the end of the afternoon.

"Our guys are paid weekly, they're fully employed, and they're eligible for unemployment," she said. They can also get loans and advances on their paychecks.

All of this makes for high expenses and low profit margins. In addition, one goal of the business is to help workers secure permanent positions with MaineWorks clients. This means Walsh needs to constantly recruit new laborers.

But she says she is able to charge construction companies more than her competitors do. And despite her high costs, she quickly started making money. In 2012, MaineWorks' revenue was $250,000. By 2015, it hit $1.6 million. In March, the U.S. Small Business Administration named her Maine's Small Businessperson of the Year.

When a worker first starts at MaineWorks, there is a two-week trial period. Then Walsh and her small team of office administrators meet with the employee to discuss the future.

"We say, 'OK, what do you need to move your life forward?'" Walsh said. The answers range from a driver's license to dentures to housing. MaineWorks then refers the worker to various partners it has in the community, some of which provide free services.

"We don't look at it as just trying to get bodies in there," said Antonio Ramos, who started out as a day laborer for MaineWorks in 2012 and is now a project manager. "We're generally trying to find people who are into their recovery or people who want to do something different with their lives and they just need an opportunity."

'The most definitive program I've seen yet'

The company pays its workers $10.10 an hour to start, which is well above Maine's $7.50-an-hour minimum wage. Walsh estimates that half of her employees make $12 an hour and some make as much as $21 an hour.

But there are real challenges to working with a population of former prison inmates and addicts. Simply getting employees to show up to work on time can be difficult.

"It's like herding cats, basically," Walsh said, adding that most workers are 19 to 30 years old. "Many of them were young when they became addicted," so they face cognitive difficulties. "They're very scattered." Hence the early-morning phone calls and ride offers.

For those like Eason, Walsh is something of a savior. In the coming weeks, he expects to start working full time at the window company he has been doing temporary work for through MaineWorks.

Bailey credits Walsh's strong leadership for her success. She eschews the tough-love approach. If MaineWorks employees relapse, they aren't sent out to work, but neither are they let go from the company. Instead, Walsh and her team help get them medical help or a bed in a sober house.

"It's the most definitive program I've seen yet, and I've been at this reform business for 40-something years," Bailey said.

The company has so far expanded to Tennessee, and Walsh has plans to move into New Hampshire and Massachusetts. She is also hoping to form a partnership with a large foundation to help spur quick growth nationwide.

"People feel like they've been able to replace their addiction with a sense of purpose and belonging," Walsh said. "Once you put the heroin down, you need a replacement, and it can't be a video game controller. So work is the answer."


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