HARRINGTON, Maine — When Worcester Wreath was having a labor shortage going into wreath season this fall, the company found relief from an unexpected source.
The company made its needs known to the Maine Department of Labor and ended up getting a call the first week in November from the state Department of Corrections, which supplied 75 workers.
“I’m not sure how it happened but we were glad they called,” said Rob Worcester, company vice president.
The creative cooperation started when labor officials contacted corrections officials about the need at Worcester, according to Julie Rabinowitz, spokesperson for the labor agency.
Labor representatives were looking for people to fill “intermittent short-term jobs. That’s what we have,” said Jody Breton, deputy commissioner for the Department of Corrections.
In order to meet the need, the corrections officials pooled inmates from other prisons in the system who were interested in working at Worcester.
“We actually moved some prisoners from other facilities to Downeast [Correctional Facility in Machiasport],” Breton said. “We were able to fulfill the need by just shifting some inmates around.”
Breton said Worcester paid all costs associated with getting inmates transferred and to work, including the costs of transportation and overtime for guards.
“Worcester is paying 100 percent of any costs above and beyond what we [normally] would expect to pay,” she said.
Anthony Carro, 29, who is serving a four year and three month sentence for drug trafficking, was one of the inmates selected to work at Worcester Wreath.
He was housed at the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren when he found out about the openings at Worcester and signed up. He and nine or 10 other inmates from Bolduc were transferred to the Downeast facility so they could work, he said.
Carro, due to be released Dec. 24, had never worked for a wreath company before.
“It was definitely interesting walking in. I had no idea what I was doing,” said Carro.
He spent about half his time making wreaths and half his time in a support position, making boxes, packing them and loading them onto pallets, he said. Starting Tuesday, he and other inmates were sent to Worcester land in Jonesboro to do some tipping — cutting branches off evergreens to make the wreaths.
Carro said he learned a few pointers on wreath making from fellow inmate Richard Newbury, 31, who is originally from the Blue Hill area and has been involved in wreath making for most of his life.
Newbury is about four months from the end of a sentence of nine months and one day for criminal speeding and eluding police, he said.
Newbury said this has been his first chance to take advantage of the work release program and it helped him relieve the monotony of prison life.
“I did it just to get out of here,” said Newbury. “The money was just a bonus.”
For both of them, but especially Carro, the chance to work for the company whose owner, Morrill Worcester, founded Wreaths Across America was satisfying. Through that organization, fallen veterans are honored each year with wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery and other cemeteries around the country.
“I thought that was the best part of it,” said Carro, who had worked at a farm last summer and in the prison wood shop for about two years.
Both Newbury and Carro said they wished to thank Worcester Wreath Co. for giving them the chance to work and honor veterans at the same time.
The wreath company never worked with inmates before, said Worcester. He admitted the company and other employees “had concerns” but the inmates’ good behavior and work ethic won them over.
“I can’t really say enough positive about what they do,” Worcester said. “We loved this. Everything about it seemed to be a win-win, for us and for them.”
Worcester advertised for local workers as always and, when it couldn’t find enough this year, the firm worked with a labor contractor to bring in foreign migrant workers, Rabinowitz said. But there was a problem with the paperwork and the crew of migrants could not be hired in time, causing a sudden labor shortfall.
“The contractor did not follow all the federal guidelines properly,” Rabinowitz said.
Although it is uncommon for problems like this to occur, it is not uncommon for companies to use labor contractors to fill seasonal positions, she said.
Because the migrants didn’t arrive as planned, the company had to “play catch-up,” said Worcester. In order to do so, the company hired even more than its usual 450 seasonal workers.
Because the wreath factories didn’t have enough stations, some inmates, along with about a dozen other workers, took on a second shift, working side by side, he said.
“We’re not segregating them or anything,” Worcester said.
The inmates are supervised by managers from the company and by their own guards, Worcester said.
“They received the same pay as everyone in the factory,” he said, adding that wages start at $8.50 an hour and go up from there. Employees doing piece work have the opportunity to make a lot more.
“A lot of [the inmates] did really well,” he said.
The money inmates make is paid to them the same way it is paid to any employee, said Worcester and Breton.
Inmates keep at least 25 percent of their earnings. The other 75 percent can be used to pay restitution, back fines and child support. However, if the inmate has already paid all such expenses, he or she can keep the entire paycheck, Breton said.
Both Carro and Newbury were able to keep their paychecks because they had no debts, they said.
Breton pointed out that inmates must volunteer for work.
“We don’t force an inmate to work,” said Breton. “Most of them jump at it because it’s a chance to make money.”
The inmates selected for the work release program must be considered low risk, Breton said. Risk is assessed by scoring the inmate on various criteria, such as the severity of the crime committed and how well the inmate behaved while incarcerated. Participants in the work release program also must have less than two years remaining on their sentence, she said.
“This has been our biggest amount of people we have put to work in this particular industry,” she said of the inmates employed at Worcester, noting another 20 were employed at the Whitney Wreath Co. in Whitneyville.
“We’ve hired 20 or so inmates for the last five years,” said owner David Whitney.
Inmates at Whitney Wreath were assigned to load and unload trucks, build boxes and sweep the floors, he said. This year none was making wreaths, though there is no policy or reason for why not. It just happened that way, he said.
Whitney Wreath plans to continue using inmate labor.
“They do good work. They’re very respectful,” Whitney said.
Worcester said his company will certainly consider using the inmates again next year.
“It was all positive as far as we’re concerned,” he said.