Second chances often don’t come easily for those getting out of prison. Combine a criminal record with a history of addiction, and finding a job can seem impossible. But that’s where MaineWorks comes in.
MaineWorks is a temporary employment agency that specializes in hiring convicted felons. In just five years it has become a million-dollar-plus company.
CEO Margo Walsh of Falmouth was recently named Maine’s small-business person of the year. And Monday she and the nominees from around the country were in Washington, D.C., to be formally recognized by the Small Business Administration.
Five years ago, Walsh was a newly divorced mom who was forced to go on MaineCare to take care of her children. Today she runs a company that had revenues of $1.7 million in 2015 and is on the verge of expanding to several other states.
Walsh conducts much of her business out of her truck, whether she’s recruiting workers from sober houses in Portland, visiting job sites or giving an unexpected lift to workers like Lamont Coggins, who flagged her down in Falmouth from the side of the road.
Walsh places them in construction, landscaping and property maintenance jobs.
Coggins has been with MaineWorks for nearly three years. He’s a skilled laborer who moved to Maine from New York but initially had trouble finding a job.
“I got kind of like a rough look so that was already kind of like a no,” he says. “With all the proper credentials it was still like no.”
Coggins, who’s black, attributes most of the closed doors to his lack of connections in Maine. But he also has a 26-year-old felony conviction on his record. He spent five years in prison in New York and says he hasn’t been in trouble since.
“The first thing they ask me is if I was convicted of a crime,” he says. “I say yes. Then they ask me what. I say armed robbery, and once you tell ’em that it’s like, mmm — black.”
Coggins says he was starting to lose hope that he would be able to support his wife and four kids. And then he found out about MaineWorks and Walsh. She has helped him pay his phone bills, buy groceries and moved him out a homeless shelter, and he’s had steady work ever since.
“You’re not just a name or a number,” Coggins says. “You’re a person and they care about you.”
Walsh likes to make sure her workers have something to eat before they start the day. Going without a breakfast or lunch, even a pair of work boots, can be a deciding factor about whether someone lasts at a construction job for more than just a few days, she says. But with her help, most of the workers are having success.
“For example, out of 150 people who stayed with MaineWorks for over two weeks of continual employment — which is a real hurdle, by the way, two weeks is when people will either stay or not make it,” she says. “Out of that 150 people, four percent were reincarcerated, which is a stunning outcome.”
It’s stunning because of the high number of people who reoffend and return to jail. Walsh says it’s typically close to 70 percent.
She attributes the success of MaineWorks to individual counseling, peer support and accountability, the same kind of principles that apply to people in recovery.
At an apartment building in downtown Portland, Antonio Ramos is the project manager for a painting job where several men are employed through MaineWorks. Starting pay is $10 an hour. But supervisors like Ramos can earn nearly twice as much. Considering he was looking at up to 10 years in prison, Ramos says he feels pretty fortunate.
“I had gotten addicted to pills at first. I started using OxyContins and then I moved onto heroin and then that progression led me to selling heroin and I was later caught for trafficking heroin,” he says.
Because it was a first offense, Ramos wound up getting probation with the threat of prison if he screwed up. His only requirement was to stay off drugs. He entered rehab, got recruited by MaineWorks and has been sober for four years.
“When you give people work, you give them a sense of purpose and some dignity and focus in their life,” he says. “And these types of things, they just don’t benefit employers. They don’t just benefit the tax rolls. They benefit families. They benefit the community and all of us.”
With a shortage of skilled labor, Walsh is able to charge companies a few extra dollars above what she pays her employees. She’s then able to make a profit.
At first, she says, she hoped she could just convince a few employers that with a little structure, a little extra support, convicted felons can be good workers. Now she’s looking to expand to places like Denver and Miami.
“There’s a really compelling need for this. There’s a constant source of great people coming out of the systems and a lot of people in recovery, a lot of work in construction, which is great-paying jobs,” Walsh says.
She got the idea for MaineWorks after volunteering at the Cumberland County Jail. She says her success is the outgrowth of her own story of recovery. She’s an alcoholic who entered rehab in 1997 after hitting her own rock bottom.
Climbing back up, she says, has taught her that there is no higher purpose than helping other people rebuild their lives.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public Broadcasting Network.