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Updated: December 9, 2019 Focus on Employment/HR/Benefits

A first for industry of second chances: Corrections Department teams up

Photo / Tim Greenway Irina Erickson, who is a resident of the Women’s Re-Entry Center in Windham, works at David’s 388 in South Portland. She is part of a new apprenticeship established by HospitalityMaine and the state Department of Corrections.

Irina Erickson looked at home serving up mulligatawny at the final lunch at HospitalityMaine’s annual summit at Sugarloaf in early November.

Dressed in a black tunic, she chatted and served up cups of soup with the comfort of a food service industry veteran.

But she and four other servers at the Nov. 5 lunch were also serving a bigger purpose that day. They are inmates at the Women’s Re-entry Center in Windham and Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston.

At the lunch, HospitalityMaine and the Maine Department of Corrections announced a ground-breaking apprentice partnership, the first time an industry organization in the state has partnered on such a program, officials say.

The state’s hospitality industry employed more than 79,000 in full and part-time jobs in 2018, according to a recent HospitalityMaine study. There’s no available figure on how many more jobs went unfilled, but it’s in the thousands, says Steve Hewins, CEO of HospitalityMaine, which represents 1,000 members in the restaurant and lodging business

The industry is in a workforce crisis.

“We have to have creative ways to tackle that,” Hewins says.

Meanwhile, those who have served time often have trouble finding work.

Speaking at the lunch where Erickson served, Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said, “We know how to reduce recidivism — education, job training, support services and stigma reduction. That’s exactly what this partnership is all about.”

Terry Hayes, HospitalityMaine’s director of workforce development, says, “This population needs meaningful, living-wage employment and our members need a fresh source of talent. Our collaboration with DOC is a real step forward toward solving our state-wide workforce needs.”

Trying to get by

When Erickson arrived at the Maine Correction Women’s Center in Windham in September 2018, she says, “I had every intention of not working.”

“I was scared out of my mind,” says Erickson, 48, as she sits for an interview in a conference room at the Women’s Re-entry Center. “I was literally just trying to get by, minute by minute.”

She’d never been incarcerated before and, because of the nature of her offense, she wasn’t in contact with her family. She felt she had no support system.

She was assigned to work in the kitchen, and got involved in a culinary program run by culinary arts instructor Krista Okerholm.

A turning point for Erickson was taking the ServeSafe certification course, which teaches food handling and other kitchen safety rules.

It was grueling, Erickson says, and not very glamorous, but she enjoyed it.

The culinary program at the re-entry center, which was in place before the new apprenticeship program, helps women find jobs when they’re released, mostly at places like Applebees and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Okerholm hooked Erickson up with David’s 388 in South Portland.

‘We don’t want them coming back’

Hewins became CEO and president of HospitalityMaine last year, when the merger of the Maine Restaurant Association and Maine Innkeepers Association became official.

While the group’s mission also includes advocacy and education, Hewins focused on workforce development from the beginning.

There were already individual programs to introduce the industry to the state’s incarcerated population, including Okerholm’s and another through Southern Maine Community College.

In looking to form a wider-ranging formal program, Hewins toured the Maine State Prison in Warren with Liberty, who was the warden.

Liberty said something that stayed with him: “These are real people and we don’t want them coming back.”

Six months ago, Hewins met Texas chef Chad Houser at a hospitality conference. Houser owns Café Momentum, in Dallas, which is staffed by residents of the state’s youth incarceration program.

Houser’s restaurant opened in January 2015 and since has been named one of the top restaurants in its area. While the Texas recidivism rate is 50%, the rate for the 800 young men and women between the ages of 15 and 19, who’ve worked at Café Momentum is 5.2%, he said.

Crisis as motivation

Houser’s mother-in-law lives in Damariscotta, and that was Hewins’ hook to get Houser to address this year’s hospitality summit and help introduce the new partnership.

Houser told those at the Maine summit that Texas has saved an estimated $34 million in tax money by not returning those people to prison.

At the end of his talk, he told those who’d been served by Erickson and the four others, “you’ve changed five lives today.”

The crowd gave the servers a standing ovation, but Hewins says the stigma associated with their incarceration will be an issue as the program moves forward.

Still, he’s optimistic. “There’s nothing like a crisis to motivate people,” and the hospitality industry is notoriously “the industry of second chances.”

Liberty, at the summit, stressed that those in the state’s prison system are not much different from those eating lunch at the conference.

“We’ve all fallen short, we’ve all asked for forgiveness and we all believe in redemption, when it applies to us,” he says. “This partnership isn’t about taking a chance on someone, it’s about standing beside someone worthy of redemption.”

Building a stronger industry

The program is the first time an industry organization has partnered with the department on an apprentice program.

Through the program inmates can work as culinary apprentices while they prepare for their release, when they will be encouraged to continue their training.

DOC Deputy Commissioner Ryan Thornell said in a news release that the department is working with the Department of Labor to track employment post-release, “something that hasn’t been done before in Maine.”

It’s one of several workforce efforts HospitalityMaine is making.

Hayes was hired for the newly created workforce development position in March.

The organization last month announced a $44,000 grant from Maine Career Centers that will provide free academic training to 125 people in its hospitality apprentice program, a partnership with Washington County Community College that also includes a robust online learning aspect that makes it more accessible to everyone in the state.

Programs that will help bridge the language barrier with new Americans and more outreach to students, including those younger than high school age are also in the works.

A HospitalityMaine study done by the University of Maine shows the industry accounts for one in 10 jobs in Maine and, with multipliers included, generated $6.9 billion in taxable sales in 2018. While it’s the largest private-sector employer in the state, workforce issues have been hard to nail down because it’s so fragmented, with mostly small, independently owned businesses.

With the partnership with the corrections department, and other workforce programs, “we’re trying to build a stronger industry, a more sustainable one,” he says.

A life changed

When Erickson started at David’s 388, few aside from her employer knew that she was coming there from the pre-entry center.

When people found out, they didn’t judge her or treat her any differently She now feels like she’s a member of that support system she needed so much when she first arrived at Windham.

“It’s given me a sense of purpose,” she says. “It opened my mind. It changed my life.”

She was one of the first signed up for the apprentice program last month, a continuation of what she was already doing. When she’s released in the coming months, she plans to keep working at David 388.

Besides looking forward to a future in the food industry, she also hopes to become an advocate for helping better diagnose and treat people with mental health challenges.

While she regrets the actions that put her in Windham, she doesn’t think she’d be where she is if it weren’t for the year-plus she’s spent there.

“I had no faith in myself,” she said. She attributes her newfound confidence and awareness “to jumping into the culinary experience and the help and support I got.”

Erickson credits Liberty as well as Okerholm, who supported her and saw her potential. It was Okerholm who originally suggested to David Turin, owner of David’s 388, that he hire women from the culinary arts program in Windham.

Turin says he was initially resistant.

“I didn’t want anything to do with it,” he says.

He had a preconceived idea of what people in the corrections system would be like and he was concerned about the safety of his employees and business. But he toured the center and met the people.

“My preconceived notions were proven wrong at every turn,” he says.

“We all have stories where you set up half a dozen interviews and no one shows up. [Those in the program] have to show up. It’s in their best interest and there’s a real downside if they don’t.”

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December 16, 2019

#GoodShow #Maine ! It’s interesting because in the early 80s at least one of the most famous #restaurants in Maine was the #oronoka in #OronoMaine. The #owner and #headchef I believe his name is #JohnKobritz Had an unofficial program in which he would provide employment for early release Inmates at the local county jail. Way ahead of the times.

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