Natalie Varrallo, Preble Street’s food programs director, walks into the industrial kitchen of the Food Security Hub, housed in a 30,000-square-foot space in South Portland in December. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Preble Street employees, who have worked on the front lines with vulnerable populations during the pandemic, will see a significant boost in pay under a new contract that could help them stay in their jobs.

Preble Street United union leaders and management say the contract also will make the agency, a major provider of social services for homeless and low-income people in Portland, a leader in Maine in promoting and strengthening racial equity, diversity and inclusion in the workplace – and will help recruit and retain staff, support immigrants and workers of color, and create a safer environment for staff and clients.

The contract, which is expected to be finalized this week, sets a minimum wage of $18 an hour for all staff and a minimum salary of $40,000 a year for all full-time employees. The average pay increase for unionized workers will be 19 percent over the two-year contract.

“The pandemic has brought many new challenges for Preble Street, but we’ve been able to continue to provide clients with a high level of service, dignity and care because of the incredible dedication of the Preble Street staff,” Mark Swann, the agency’s executive director, said in a statement Monday. “This agreement honors that dedication by making an agency-wide, long-lasting change to our wage structure that increases equity, makes a significant investment in Preble Street staff and is sustainable for the long-term health of the organization.”


The spread of COVID-19 forced big changes on the organization at the same time it was dealing with an increasing number of homeless people and in the number of meals it provides to people experiencing food insecurity. Before the pandemic, Preble Street served 65,000 meals each month at its soup kitchen on Oxford Street. By the end of 2021, it was distributing 100,000 meals a month.


After 28 years, the soup kitchen on Oxford Street closed as the agency shifted away from congregate dining to keep people safe. A street outreach team began delivering food to unhoused people across the city. Staff and volunteers now prepare and distribute meals from the agency’s recently opened Food Security Hub in South Portland to people being housed in hotels and motels in the area.

Last year, Preble Street received approval for plans to convert its former resource center in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood into a 40-bed emergency shelter.

Founded in 1975, Preble Street also offers other services, including veterans housing, wellness shelters and a teen center. Workers voted in 2019 to form the union while expressing concerns about low wages and high employee turnover.

Preble Street United, which is Maine Service Employees Association-Service Employees Union Local 1989,  now represents 150 staff at locations in Portland, Lewiston and Bangor.

Union members say the terms of the agreement will allow them to stay in their jobs instead of seeking higher wages elsewhere, and will make Preble Street a more equitable and enjoyable place to work.

Dylan Monahan, a health services caseworker and member of the Preble Street United bargaining team, expressed pride in “the strength of our solidarity and the gains we’ve collectively made this year in our contract.”


“I am proud to report to my peers we won movement on every proposal we brought to the table, from provisions around further developing our wage scale to provisions around equity and inclusion and more. We look forward to testing new contract language in the coming two years and continuing to build our union here at Preble Street,” Monahan said.


Swann said the agreement will make Preble Street a leader in the human services sector. Retention at the agency is on par with others who do this challenging work, he said, but Preble Street will now be more competitive.

“With the job market the way it is right now, it’s even more important for us to keep our employees here who are doing a good job for us and who are connected to the work,” Swann said.

The agreement adds seven steps to the wage scale and, upon ratification, increases pay by $3.50 to $5.50 per hour.

For months during the pandemic, Preble Street paid $4 million in time-and-a-half “gratitude pay” to more than 400 front-line employees, including people in temporary positions in COVID-19 shelters. The agency focused on trying to raise new private funding and to increase government contracts to support those wage increases in a sustainable way, Preble Street said.


The agreement includes multiple items designed to address racial equity, diversity and inclusion in the workplace. It includes enforceable guidelines to address hate speech in the workplace. Management will now be required to act on reports of hate speech used by clients against staff within 48 hours and report back to the aggrieved employee about steps the employer is taking to address the incident.

Employees who don’t speak English as a first language have a right to paid interpreters during disciplinary and investigatory meetings. There will be additional compensation for staff who use their multilingual skills with clients and for staff leads who use another language to communicate with bilingual teams. All employees will have the right to serve on every committee or council that deals with racial equity, diversity and inclusion.

The agreement also includes a more inclusive bereavement policy to accommodate different cultural traditions and relationships. That will include expanding eligible leave for any relationship that is similar to a bond of kinship and allowing additional time for overseas travel or other days of mourning depending on cultural traditions.

Lenoir Kelley is proficient in French and often uses her language skills as a case worker at Preble Street. Now she and others will be paid for that added labor.


“We have such an awesome, talented, diverse group of employees who speak a huge range of languages and provide that support all the time,” she said. “They deserve to be compensated for their additional skills that they are bringing to the table.”


Kelley said the management and the union came together to align Preble Street’s values for its clients and its employees.

“If internally an agency is not living true to those values, then it feels quite hypocritical to do that work externally,” she said. “This was a really exciting opportunity to continue to match the work that I do day to day, advocating for financial stability and access to basic needs, really having that aligned with how I and my fellow union workers are treated.”

Mike-Anthony Campbell II, a caseworker in Preble Street’s Veterans Housing Services, is a Black gay man and recent arrival to Maine. He is proud that Preble Street is “finally taking the necessary strides to prove such a commitment to minority equality and engagement” in the new contract.

“It is with great pleasure and admiration that I salute my organization and work home, as Preble Street sets the standards for exemplifying its personal commitment to become one with all cultures and diversities pronounced by its dynamic workforce,” he said in a prepared statement. “On top of that, my organization has become the prototype for listening and learning from those whom they value the most, the heartbeat of social service. As one united force we continue to overcome all obstacles and achieve our mission ‘to provide accessible, barrier-free services to empower people experiencing problems with homelessness, housing, hunger, and poverty, and to advocate for solutions to these problems’, together.”

Before the agreement was in place, caseworker Erin Keeley planned to leave her job at Florence House, which provides permanent housing for chronically homeless women. Keeley decided to stay because of the wage increase.

“This agreement means I can now get my focus back to where it belongs, helping ladies better their lives,” Keeley said.

Zoe Ernst joined Preble Street in June and works three days a week getting hundreds of meals out the door of the Food Security Hub in South Portland. She said the step scale that will increase wages over time will help retain employees, especially those who have been with Preble Street through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“All of those things have definitely helped me personally feel like I can stay at the agency,” Ernst said. “Being involved in this process has also definitely been an experience that makes me feel good about being part of this work.”

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