BANGOR — The manager is known by his first name, and the workers show support for one another with occasional hugs. A passe dance hit, “The Macarena,” is the tape of choice, playing over and over from a portable stereo.
It could be just about any workplace in Bangor. Phoenix Industries, however, is unique — it’s a low-tech, high-energy, nonprofit workshop employing 36 people with varying degrees of mental retardation and physical disabilities.
Phoenix was set up 25 years ago in an enlightened attempt to give people with handicaps work experience. While the workshop has remained simple and the tasks rudimentary, the quality of the product has kept the company consistently busy, earning it some major contracts.
The most recent big work deal came from Bangor’s Sea Dog Brewing Co., which awarded Phoenix a beer box assembly contract formerly handled in New York by Sea Dog’s bottle maker, Owens Brockway.
“We were looking for a local producer,” says Dennis Harrington, manager of operations at Sea Dog. “It was no longer cost-effective to have it done in New York.”
Whereas Owens Brockway assembled the beer boxes using high-tech machinery, Phoenix relies on the hands of its workers. At long tables, employees unfold new, flattened six-pack containers bearing the Salty the Sea Dog logo, fill them with empty beer bottles, and stock the six-packs in cardboard cases also assembled on site.
The cases are loaded onto pallets, the full pallets wrapped in plastic, and the finished product shipped to the Front Street brewery, where the bottles are removed, filled with beer and restocked in the six-pack containers.
“My hands go so fast it’s like a blur,” says Mike, one of the Phoenix employees, after unfolding six-pack containers and stocking them in cases. “I was going so fast, they couldn’t keep up with me.”
Phoenix insists workers’ full names not be released publicly. The condition speaks to the company’s larger purpose as a rehabilitation agency where the workers are also clients. Yet Phoenix, which has dropped the long-standing “Industries” from its name in favor of “Employment and Rehabilitation Services,” does pay Mike and the 35 other workers for the full value of their work.
“Things have changed a lot — the employees’ average hourly wages have consistently inched up,” says shop manager Bob Ellis. “The cost of printing the paychecks used to be more than what the checks were actually being made out for.”
Ellis says that, not taking into consideration administration and overhead, the Phoenix workshop is itself a break-even venture. Based on productivity, the average hourly wage is $1.20. Employees work about four hours a day.
Phoenix also places people with handicaps in the community in workplaces where they are supervised by job coaches. Such positions typically pay more.
“You can be critical about it,” Ellis says of what often is interpreted as an unfairly low wage at the workshop, “but it’s based on their productivity.”
At the Sea Dog, Harrington says that the deal with Phoenix has not meant any more than a slight savings compared to the other arrangement with the New York bottler. He is pleased that the work is being done locally as well as contributing to the survival of the workshop.
Sea Dog is just one in a long line of companies that have discovered Phoenix, which is located in the Bomarc Industrial Park. In addition to beer boxes, workers are kept busy four hours a day, five days a week with such jobs as sorting clothes hangers — gold-colored ones for pants and white ones for shirts — and red shop towels that arrive cleaned but need to be organized 10 to a package.
Ellis says that Christmas is also a particularly busy time, when Phoenix takes on mail-sorting work as well as box assembling for products sich as live lobsters. The Sea Dog contract is perfect for the workshop, he says, because of the varying degrees of assembling involved.
“The highly productive employees can find something in it, like stapling the larger boxes and wrapping the pallets, while people with less skills can participate by assembling six-pack containers,” Ellis explains.