TennesseeWorks connects individuals in recovery to jobs

TennesseeWorks is like any other temporary staffing agency operating in Memphis, only in addition to placing individuals in jobs, it also provides hope to men and women in recovery.

Connecting individuals looking for work with employers is the job of a temporary staffing agency. When it was founded a year ago, TennesseeWorks immediately went to work on that aspect of the mission.

But placing individuals with companies seeking temporary employees was only part of the work. The underlying mission was and remains placing individuals in recovery in jobs. Recovery includes individuals coming to terms with sobriety as well as re-entry following time in prison.

TennesseeWorks last year began working with sober houses and other recovery resources to place individuals in temporary labor, mostly in construction work. Workers do everything from non-skill labor such as picking up site debris to fire caulking that allows a licensed electrician to focus on his or her work.

Lance Hiller has been in recovery for three and a half years. A career service industry professional, he eventually realized he couldn’t get sober and remain that way while waiting tables. His first job was scrubbing toilets in a fitness center, eventually rising to operations manager there.

Through a co-worker, Hiller made a connection with Scott Imorde, President of RBM Ventures, who was looking for someone to manage a halfway house. That ultimately grew to replace TennesseeWork’s founding operations director, Kevin Gallagher, who stepped away earlier this year for health issues.

“Everything that they say in recovery is true about God doing for me what I can’t do for myself,” Hiller said. “I never thought I’d manage a halfway house and work for a temp agency in my life.”

Today, Hiller is the operations director. He serves as a liaison between companies and workers. He helps place individuals in the best work environment to be successful.

Like other temporary agencies, TennesseeWorks is in the business of placing people in jobs for clients. The focus is on quality workers instead of providing a large quantity.

TennesseeWorks gets to know individuals beginning with the application process and continues the relationship on the job with site visits.

“Our basic deal with people we hire is I don’t care what you’ve done, what are you willing to do,” Gallagher said. “We’ll do everything we can to remove the barriers that prevent you from working. If that means picking you up at 6 in the morning or make sure you have the appropriate safety gear, we’ll do that. They’re not just workers to us. They’re people we’re committed to. Our clients see that difference.”

TennesseeWorks has the social mission of helping alcoholics, addicts and individuals coming out of institutions with nonviolent felonies. But while the company targets those individuals, it also is a business that must fill temporary employment needs of client businesses.

“We run into the same situations as every company, you have to find the workers, the ones who will be good,” Hiller said. “I tell the guys and girls this all the time: You can tell me exactly what I want to hear, however I’ll find out sooner or later if you’re going to work. I can open the door. They have to walk through.”

Hiller is there for participants, whether it’s providing rides to work or coaching them through life issues. Sometimes it’s simple advice that helps on a construction site; if it’s hot outside, for example, a friendly reminder to bring extra water to work.

The men and women who work at TennesseeWorks cover a range of economic backgrounds. Most are from low socio-economic backgrounds, but others represent wealthier backgrounds. Not everyone is in a 12-step program.

“Our whole goal is we don’t care what you did in the past. It’s what you’re doing now and in the future,” Hiller said. “My whole idea is to connect with these guys and get to know them on a more personal level to find out what their needs are.”

TennesseeWorks owes its start to Margo Walsh and an effort in Maine to connect individuals in recovery to work opportunities. She heard a speech about the tax credits available for businesses that put convicted felons to work. She decided to be the middle man in the process, and MaineWorks was born in 2011.

“When you’re in rehab it’s not a great time so I thought I could dignify that,” said Walsh, herself in recovery from a substance use disorder. “They get discriminated against. I sought to dignify that transition because of my experience.”

Walsh met Memphis’ Brad Martin at a conference in New Mexico. He told her he loved her business model and asked if she’d come to Tennessee.

“He’s got this give-back bucket,” said Imorde. “What she’s done is the marriage of a for-profit business in the marketplace trying to compete but also have a social mission. When Brad met Margo it was an ‘ah ha’ moment.”

While MaineWorks focused on the 65,000 or so residents of Portland, Maine, TennesseeWorks targets a much larger Memphis. Walsh wanted to bring a similar boutique temp agency approach to the Bluff City, where she is majority owner of TennesseeWorks along with Martin.

“You can’t mass replicate empathy and it’s based in empathy,” she said. “It’s a for-profit corporation with a social mission.”

TennesseeWorks actually is a benefit corporation that’s owned by MaineWorks. Legislation was signed into law this year allowing a company and its board of directors to not only maximize shareholder value but to do it while having a social mission and measure the impact on it. Thank along the lines of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream or Tom’s Shoes. There are 30 states and the District of Columbia that allow B corporations.

Long term, the goal is to see an average of 50 men and women working daily in the Memphis area within a year. One obstacle to that goal is local competition from temporary agencies that pay less, costing clients less money. But Walsh said it’s important that TennesseeWorks provide a dignified experience for workers to know where they’re going from day to day instead of standing around waiting to be chosen.

“We take people who are extremely vulnerable,” Walsh said. “TennesseeWorks employs people and retains them in order to provide a dignified employment experience that includes people with obstacles in front of them.”

The desire is to get more Memphis companies to seek temporary employees through TennesseeWorks, filling a need while giving hope and a job to men and women in recovery.

“My biggest thing is there is a huge social mission, but I go up and tell people that we’re like any other business,” Hiller said. “Everybody has the issue of finding good people. It’s trial and error. It’s talking to them. It is a struggle. It’s finding those little gems, just shiny rocks you can work with and it hopefully helps people out.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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