August 15, 2010

Temp work helps felons get back on track

Maine Day Labor provides ex-cons with experience and a reference they need to re-enter the job market.

By David Hench
Staff Writer

When Travis Battis got out of prison in December, virtually every prospective employer shied away from his criminal history. He'd served two years for burglary and assault, he said.

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Margo Davies, who created a temp agency that specializes in finding work for felons, talks with employees Leonardo Tavares, center, and Royce Guptill at the end of a workday.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Kyle Crooker, an employee of Maine Day Labor, signs his time sheet before going home for the day. Some of the workers participated in a program at the Maine Correctional Center entailing 60 hours of training in such areas as demonstrating responsibility, problem solving, honesty and interview skills.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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But the 29-year-old fisherman landed a position with Maine Day Labor Inc., a Portland agency that hires temporary workers, including men who are getting out of jail or prison and need a chance to get their feet on the ground.

"I felt like it was a red flag everywhere else," Battis said of his record. He tried fishing jobs, oil-change businesses and various other types of labor, without success. "It's a weight lifted, to not have the stress of denial."

Margo Davies, a self-described Falmouth lacrosse mom, helped start the agency after hearing the noted defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey give a presentation about the importance and the cost savings to society when businesses step up and hire felons.

"These guys who are committed to reform deserve opportunities," said Davies, whose background includes human resources work for Wall Street investment companies.

For the working poor, getting by on two or three days' pay isn't easy, but it can mean the difference between an apartment or a homeless shelter, groceries or welfare.

The work experience and reference can be the step up an ex-convict needs to get established in the job market -- one of the most important factors in staying out of trouble, say corrections officials.

"Employment is one of the key points of reducing long-term costs of the department, by reducing recidivism," said Scott Burnheimer, superintendent of the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

When Bailey addressed the Portland Community Chamber in June, he urged business leaders to make room in their work force for felons.

Bailey is trying to start an early-release program that provides job skills, and links prisons and jails with employers. Absent that, prison inmates face isolation and dismal prospects.

For many of those people, the consequences of incarceration last much longer than the sentence. They often leave prison with just a change of clothes -- no money, no home and no job.

Many have lost their driver's licenses. They typically have outstanding fines, restitution or child support they need to pay. They often must pay for substance abuse counseling or domestic violence counseling as part of their probation.

And unless they had an employer when they were sentenced that will hire them back, they face a hostile job market, made worse by the economic slowdown.

"Every application asks 'Are you a felon?'" Davies said.

Davies and a partner, Sandy MacLeod, started Maine Day Labor in March. Some of its workers are students who want summer work, military personnel who are waiting to deploy, and others who lack full-time jobs.

Davies also works to recruit former inmates who are low-risk and will make the most of their opportunity.

On a recent day, she had 10 men working, six of whom were felons. Of those, four were on probation and two were still incarcerated but were eligible for work-release.

She wakes at 4:30 a.m. and starts fielding calls from clients who are looking for workers. The clients -- mostly construction and landscaping companies -- pay $18 an hour per worker.

She pays them $10 an hour, better than the $7.50 minimum wage. The rest covers the cost of doing payroll, taxes, worker's compensation insurance and running the business. There is no health insurance for the part-time work.

Because few of the workers have licenses and even fewer have cars, Davies uses her minivan to pick up several of them in the morning and take them to work. At the end of the day, she drops them off at home, or at a pre-release center, halfway house or shelter.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Margo Davies, co-founder, Maine Day Labor

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer


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