I suspect this week's cover story, about Carolina Color Corp.'s use of a work-release program with a state prison in North Carolina, will be polarizing.
Chairman and CEO Matt Barr explains how the company benefits, and it's a great story. Surely it's something that some other plastics manufacturers may be interested in copying, because it's been successful from a business point of view. Especially for companies that say they have trouble finding and keeping good workers, which is just about everyone. It's intriguing that Barr has come up with a solution that works.
The stories from workers are even more powerful. How they feel just like any other worker. How the program has helped them make the difficult transition from prison to civilian life. How they feel loyal to Carolina Color.
More than one employee told our News Editor — International Steve Toloken about buying a home shortly after being released from prison, thanks to the solid work history and credit score they built starting when they were on work release. Steve didn't ask — these workers volunteered that fact on their own. They were proud. That's a moving, and memorable, part of the story.
But not everyone will be a fan. We've written stories in the past about plastics companies using prison labor — some recyclers, some molders, some extruders. I've heard feedback from readers complaining that it put competitors at a disadvantage, or that prisoners are behind bars to be punished, not to earn money.
Let's put aside the big picture for a second and address those concerns. First, on the competition question, note that Carolina Color pays market wages to its prison laborers on work release. Legally, they could pay minimum wage. So the only advantage is the company doesn't pay benefits including health insurance or retirement. But workers who stay with the company after they are released from prison get those benefits.
On the punishment vs. pay question, note that the work-release program isn't available to all prisoners. Only those from the minimum-security unit of the Piedmont Correctional Institution, and only those who have earned the lowest level of security, and who follow strict work rules, including random drug testing.
Mike Linnane, who came to the company 24 years ago on work release and now handles hiring for Carolina Color, made it clear that the workers aren't showing up for an easy paycheck.
"We have a lot of jobs here that are dirty jobs. You get nasty. A lot of people don't want to work like that," he told Toloken.
We're talking hard, physical labor. Another worker, James Harley, said: "I think the main skill set here is to have a backbone to work."
Just like other plastics companies that I've visited, Carolina Color mostly hires people with good attitudes who are trainable. The prison itself screens inmates and sends an average of four for each opening. The company can be picky about who it hires, just like any other employer.
Not every worker is able to cut it. The company doesn't release numbers, but Barr said the North Carolina plant has very favorable turnover numbers compared to the average employer in the area.