MaineWorks works

Each day at MaineWorks begins the same way at 6a.m., with 20 or 30 people – employees and volunteers – forming a circle around a large metal fire pit in the company’s Portland parking lot. Margo Walsh, MaineWorks’ founder and owner, is an energetic presence on a dark, cold morning, checking in with each person, asking one man whether he got a paycheck, inquiring of another if he slept well the previous night.

Joanne Arnold, who Walsh describes as the group’s spiritual leader and motivator, presents an eloquent, inspirational message for the day: “This work reminds me of building a fire. You have to start small, with just a spark. You don’t need gas or a torch — just a spark, and you add to it, little by little, being careful not to suffocate that spark.”

One by one, each person volunteers their name, where they’re from, and where they’ll be sleeping that night. Many of MaineWorks’ employees live at sober houses in Portland. For a lot of them, that’s where they first learned about this innovative employment company.

“Does anyone not have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving?” Walsh asks the group. MaineWorks stays open during the winter holidays, providing a haven in the midst of a season that can
be particularly challenging for those in recovery. “Anyone have the experience of screwing up the family’s Christmas?” she asks, to widespread laughter, and several hands go up in recognition.

Arnold speaks of a former MaineWorks employee who died recently, adding a pinecone to the fire pit in memoriam. “If you’re hanging on by a thread, say something,” Walsh urges. “You’re not alone. It’s lonely out there, and there’s nothing more lonely than an isolated drug addict.”

Since founding MaineWorks in 2010, Walsh has done her best to ensure that people who are newly sober, newly released from prison, or facing other barriers to work are not alone. She’s a single parent of two children and has extensive work experience as a recruiter for investment banks. Volunteering at the Cumberland County Jail, Walsh learned firsthand how difficult it was for inmates in pre-release to find employment. “The recruiter in me kicked in,” she says.

In recovery herself since 1997, Walsh also realized that the vast majority of them were there because of drugs and alcohol. Her goal was to provide a dignified path to work using a B Corp modeled largely after companies like Patagonia, which “consider the impact their businesses have on the world.” Walsh has managed to create something vastly larger: an intensely supportive community that embodies her belief that business can be a way to “do the right thing, and take care of your people.”

With the help of its sister organization, the nonprofit Maine Recovery Fund, MaineWorks does something more than simply connecting workers with jobs — it actually gives workers the tools they need to succeed, including brand-new warm jackets. Research Associate Autumn Johnson describes watching this in action: “The coolest thing is when these guys get their jackets, they just feel so confident and proud. It’s a simple thing, but it’s such an exciting moment for them.”

And it’s not just jackets. Walsh and her team ensure that if an employee has needs that are barriers to success — whether that’s a dentist appointment, a ride to work, a meal, warm gloves, gift cards for their kids’ Christmas presents, or even a copy of their birth certificate — those needs will be met.

On an average day, about 50 MaineWorks employees are busy at general labor, construction, masonry and landscaping jobs with a dozen or more companies, the city of Portland and other employers. In a back room, adjacent to a huge whiteboard listing the day’s assignments, are rows of work boots, warm jackets, even socks and underwear. “Everybody who comes in gets boots, a bus pass, whatever they need,” Walsh says.

Walsh nurtures relationships with the companies who hire her workers and carefully vets employees before placing them. She’s careful to emphasize that MaineWorks is the employer: “They’re not temps, they’re our full-time employees, with all of the dignity that goes along with that.”

The word “dignity” comes up a lot when you’re talking to Walsh, and it’s evident in every interaction she has with her employees. “We want to give everybody the dignified opportunity to make it,” she says. “Everyone struggles, no matter what it looks like on the outside — when you pull the curtain back, you see it.”

Liz Woodbury

Liz Woodbury

Liz Woodbury is a freelance writer from Portland.