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A Fair Wage Can Pay off Lots of Ways

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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.   
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