Margo Walsh has news for those who complain about the cost of welfare on the one hand and, on the other, dig in their heels against a growing movement to raise the minimum wage.
“You can’t separate those two things,” Walsh said as the snow fell Wednesday outside her “office,” the roomy cab of her 2012 Chevy Silverado.
A 49-year-old single mother of two, Walsh is the sole proprietor of Maine Works, a temporary employment firm with a twist: If you’re one of the 400 or so employees who have been on Walsh’s payroll in the past three years, you’re probably a convicted felon, a recovering addict, a recently arrived immigrant, an out-of-work veteran or some combination of all the above.
Despite those employment barriers, you start at $10 per hour. After two weeks of reliable, on-time performance, you get bumped up to $12. Down the road, depending on what job site you’re assigned to, you could be pulling down $14 an hour or more.
Come again? Ten bucks an hour in a state where the minimum wage is $7.50 and the day-labor competition has no problem dispatching the down-and-out for far less than Walsh’s starting pay?
“I, as a single little business owner, have decided to forgo maximizing my profits in the interest of my workers,” Walsh explained matter-of-factly. “It’s called moving people from being a tax burden to being a taxpayer.”
Walsh finds herself listening closely these days as political leaders from President Obama to Portland Mayor Michael Brennan talk about how the time has come (actually, it’s long overdue) for a significant increase in the minimum wage.
Obama, in his State of the Union address last week, proposed a phased-in increase nationally from the current $7.25 to $9 an hour. Brennan, in his state of the city speech two weeks ago, called for at least a discussion of a yet-to-be-specified citywide minimum wage as “a way to demonstrate a commitment to that issue.”
To which Walsh responds: Why wait?
Walsh, a recovering alcoholic from Falmouth who’s been sober for 18 years, founded her firm in 2011 after volunteering at the Cumberland County Jail and realizing that, without a job, most just-released inmates don’t have a chance.
Many if not most emerge back into society not only with a rap sheet, but with histories of drug and/or alcohol abuse that leave them hanging by a thread as they try to rebuild their lives. What’s the difference between a minimum-wage job and, say, $12 an hour from Maine Works?
“It’s my lifejacket,” said Glen Jacome, 42, of Portland, who just last week wrapped up two months as a Maine Works crew leader on the all-but-completed renovation of the Cumberland County Civic Center. “I’ve worked for $7.50 or $8 an hour,” he said. “It’s really depressing and very, very hard.”
Jacome got out of the Maine State Prison in Warren in 2009 after four-plus years behind bars for drunken driving and related felony offenses. He lived, and later worked, at Serenity House, a sober home in Portland for men recovering from addiction. That’s where he heard about Maine Works.
“There’s no looking back to the past. It’s over,” Jacome said, looking out the side window of Walsh’s Silverado at the 7-Eleven parking lot on Congress Street. “And working with Margo and having this opportunity to feel good about myself, it’s tremendous.”
It’s also cost-efficient.
Where once Jacome relied on the social safety net to keep from plummeting back into his personal abyss, he now lives in a $600-a-month efficiency in Portland’s West End and is in the process of getting his driver’s license back. Where once you and I paid for Jacome’s food – be it in prison or through monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits – he now feeds himself.
Walsh, who’s not shy about knocking on construction trailer doors, now contracts with about a dozen industrial and construction companies in Greater Portland that often find themselves in need of one or more laborers for a day, a week, maybe even a month at a time. They may pay her a bit more than her competition, but the fact that she picks up her workers and delivers them to the job site every morning and scrambles to personally resolve any and all problems makes it worth the extra cost.
At the same time, it’s the right thing to do.
“We’re willing to give people a second chance and work from there – as long as they’re willing to work,” said Tim Ouellette, co-owner of CPM Constructors in Freeport.
CPM had as many as 20 Maine Works employees on its job sites (including the Martin’s Point Bridge between Portland and Falmouth) over the past year. Ouellette, without hesitation, predicts more of the same in 2014.
“It’s better for everyone if they’re working and making a wage and paying taxes and the whole deal,” he noted. “So we’re happy to have (Maine Works) there.”
CPM Constructors isn’t the only one. Maine Works’ annual revenues have grown from $240,000 in 2011 to $460,000 in 2012 to $1.06 million last year – enough for Walsh to make a living herself, to be sure, but not at the expense of the guys (and one or two women) out there happily breaking a sweat.
Recently, Walsh ran some numbers on the 25 percent of her workers who make $12 per hour (40 percent make more; 35 percent make less).
Taking the hours they worked last year (6,888), she theoretically knocked the hourly wage from $12 down to $10. The difference – money that could have flowed directly into her pocket rather than her workers’ – was $13,776.
Her point? If Walsh can pay her workers more fairly and still prosper, why can’t many other businesses?
(She’s looking at you, fast food industry: Last quarter, McDonald’s posted $1.4 billion in earnings to end what it called a “challenging” year. Yet, reports the workplace watchdog www.glassdoors.com, workers who toil beneath the golden arches still make an anemic average of $7.73 per hour.)
There are, to be fair, those mom-and-pop stores and other small businesses that are struggling just to survive. They insist, with some justification, that they’re paying their workers as much as possible and can’t spare an extra nickel (let alone a couple of bucks) per hour.
But Walsh, an equal-opportunity employer if ever there was one, still thinks too many lower-than-low-paid workers fumble for their government-issued EBT cards even as they head home from an honest day’s work. And if that makes her sound like a left-wing lunatic to the keepers of the closely guarded profit-and-loss statements, then so be it.
“It’s not a political agenda and it’s not a social agenda,” Walsh said as her cellphone heralded another job. “It’s a moral agenda.”
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: