June 13 2008 12:00 AM

While it seems unlikely that Congress will rectify the situation in one fell swoop anytime soon, there are a number of employers who are taking proactive steps to serve their clients. AAA Landscape, a multimillion dollar company with locations in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, is one of them.

AAA Landscape’s services run the gamut from large commercial installations, maintenance, tree service and irrigation. The company also has an in-house 37-acre nursery, Arid Solutions, that provides a bulk of the company’s plant materials.

With about 500 employees, including 50 crews divided between construction and maintenance, AAA Landscape is one of the largest landscaping firms in the Southwest. Most crews are comprised of a foreperson, leadperson, irrigation technician, equipment operators and laborers, and there are anywhere from four to 16 people per crew. However, like companies of all sizes, AAA Landscape has still struggled with finding additional labor to service its range of clients. The problem, says Jim Bolduc, a supervisor/ team lead, is t h a t h a r d workers who don’t object to dirtying their hands are in short supply. He says, “There’s a shift among the younger generation towards more technology-based jobs. Nobody wants to do landscaping work anymore. In the summer it can be 110 degrees outside. So the question is, ‘Who’s going to do the work?’”

How AAA Landscape answered that question may surprise you. In 2004, Human Resources Director Steve Von Prisk was approached by a member of the Community Reintegrated Coalition about the idea of using work furlough members from the Maricopa County Adult Probation Department. Initially, Von Prisk was reluctant to hire anyone with a criminal background. In fact, it was his policy to reject any applicant who had served jail time. But after mulling over the idea for some time, as well as discovering that a worthy colleague had previously served time, Von Prisk became amenable. Fighting the misconception that hardened criminals are being released to troll the streets of Phoenix, Bolduc makes it clear that only misdemeanor, non-violent offenders from the work furlough program are allowed to work for AAA Landscape. Because the company’s clientele includes schools, hospitals and residential neighborhoods, felony offenders are not placed in crew positions.

The Maricopa County Adult Probation Department maintains a set of guidelines that a probationer must meet before being allowed to participate in the work furlough program. Probationers are subject to pre-sentencing investigat i o n s t h a t screen for eligibility for the work furlough program. Among these conditions are that the probationers have legitimate full-time employment, meet certain medical conditions, are at least 18 years of age and undergo drug and alcohol monitoring. Those who have committed severe, violent offenses and most predatory sex offenders are ruled out. Also, the prospective employer must sign a letter of understanding to verify that he or she is aware of the conditions of the program, the probationers’ rate of pay and the work hours.

Once a probationer is approved for the program, the Maricopa County Probation Department will refer him or her to AAA Landscape if there seems to be a good fit for the company. Then Von Prisk considers, on a case-by-case basis, the severity of the crime, the work history and recidivism when screening an applicant with the work furlough program. All new hires also undergo doctor-administered physicals and drug testing, which is typical of every AAA Landscape employee.

There is no limit to how many probationers AAA Landscape may employ at any given time, but the company averages one probationer per month. To date, about 15 probationers have worked for the company. If, during employment, a probationer doesn’t show up for work, the appropriate probation officer is notified. In addition to this, the probation department does field reports, and probation officers will check in.

The probationers are people who have made poor decisions at one point but are not considered dangerous. Typical crimes they have committed may include DUIs, other drug/alcohol-related charges and failure to pay child support. However, they’re deemed a low enough risk that they’re allowed to leave the work furlough facility, located near the minimum-security Durango Jail, to work all day and return at night for lockdown. They are searched both leaving and re-entering the facility. If the probationers have cars, they may use them to get to and from work, but in the evening, the cars are parked at the facility.

Bolduc is one of the forepersons who train the probationers and provide orientation to the company. He used to own his own landscaping company and holds a college degree in horticulture. Bolduc describes the experience of the first day of training for the probationers. “When they arrive at the office on the first day, the sun is just coming up. The probationers look left and right, and they realize that they don’t see a single barbedwire fence. They taste the fresh air and think, ‘Wow! This is really great.’”

Among the principles that Bolduc tries to instill in the probationers as he works with them are forming an “attitude of gratitude,” persistence, integrity, accountability, leadership and communication— direct, clear and constructive. Once the probationers have learned these traits, Bolduc believes that they become accountable team players.

Based on their commercial landscape experience, the probationers start out at the same pay rate as other new hires, which generally is above the state minimum wage. After 90 days with the program, the probationers are eligible for raises, as well as quarterly profitsharing checks after a year onboard. The Maricopa County Adult Probation Department banks the checks for the probationers until they’re released, at which time a portion of that money may go towards paying off any fines that a probationer has incurred.

If employed by the facility, the probationers would make several dollars less per hour, a substantial portion of which the facility would take for meals and other expenses. So for the probationers, employment with AAA Landscape is a good opportunity to make money while learning marketable skills.

Probationers are issued uniforms, hard hats, gloves and protective equipment. They must provide their own work shoes, but in uniform they look as professional as any other AAA Landscape employee. And in terms of treatment, the probationers are no different than any other employee.

“Once they put on the uniform, they become just another member of the team,” Bolduc says. “We offer them confidentiality, as well as leadership.” If a client approaches one of the probationers on a jobsite, the probationers have been instructed to direct all inquiries to the crew forepersons. And AAA Landscape does not identify the probationers to the supervisors or clients, to avoid false alarm or unnecessary scrutiny.

Bolduc recalls one project they worked on last year at Holly Ranch involving two probationers. The task was to irrigate a traffic island, and Bolduc had only one day to turn two inexperienced employees into master pipe fitters. After pulling 1,500' of wire through pipes in sweltering summer heat, Bolduc had created experts. “I looked at it as a positive opportunity,” he says in his characteristically unassuming tone. “It’s just my job.” Eventually, the probationers rotate to other crews as new projects come to fruition. With one year of working with the probationers under his belt, Bolduc is proud to report that there have been no runners and no reports of any offenses. “We have many success stories,” he says.

Among the successes are two former probationers who have since been released and are still working with AAA Landscape in irrigation. One former probationer was promoted three times, eventually working his way up to crew leader prior to obtaining a job with the government. Another, Bolduc recalls, is a Vietnamese probationer who has also been released and is now running a million- dollar nail salon with his wife.

Von Prisk thinks that one reason the program has been successful is that the probationers are motivated to work so that they continue their involvement with the program. Also, he points to the fact that some probationers come from similar work experiences and are familiar with the demands of the job.

In addition to the probationers, AAA Landscape also employs about 120 H- 2B workers annually. Using labor from both sources to supplement the existing workforce has certain benefits. On the most basic level, having extra employees on staff helps AAA Landscape meet its need during peak demand.

However, any company who uses the H-2B program knows that many thousands of dollars are spent every year in application and agency fees. Several thousand more often go towards finding housing for the H-2B workers, providing them with transportation and, in many cases, providing additional living necessities.

AAA Landscape often helps its H-2B workers find housing near the jobsites during the season. Others live in two and three-bedroom apartments. The company provides bikes for the workers to ride to the office in the morning.

Besides providing for the H-2B workers’ living arrangements, the company must also surmount the language barrier between the forepersons and the workers, and offer training. It’s safe to say that using H-2B workers represents a major investment, both financially and operationally.

This is not to say that H-2B workers aren’t an excellent source of labor. For many companies, they are a saving grace and allow operations to continue. However, in comparison to H-2B workers, the probationers do not face the same logistical hurdles. “It’s a way to better utilize a resource,” Bolduc claims. As the probationers do not need housing, making living arrangements can be sidestepped. Probationers who don’t have cars are given bus passes to get to and from the office, but Bolduc also offers to pick up any stragglers who miss their ride.

In addition to requiring less overhead, the probationers most often do not face problems of a language barrier that the majority of H-2B workers face. Moreover, there is no fee associated with using the probationers for AAA Landscape.

Yet one of the values of using H- 2B workers is a high level of returning workers who are familiar with a company’s services and policies. Year after year, an H-2B worker may become highly skilled.

Once a probationer has completed his or her probation period, he or she may no longer choose to work for AAA Landscape. In fact, Von Prisk estimates that about 80% of work furlough employees elect to leave the company after release. As the potential for training and hiring expenses can rack up, Von Prisk considers potential employees only if they have more than 30 days remaining on their sentences.

While using a work furlough program may not be a big enough band-aid to cover every company’s labor needs, it can be a good place to turn if that need is keeping you from growing your business. There are similar work furlough programs across the country, according to Mike Goss, deputy chief of administrative services for the Maricopa County Adult Probation Department. “It’s not for every probationer, but for those who meet the criteria, it’s a good program,” he says.

And it may be a good program for companies, too. One thing is for sure: as the industry continues to struggle with H-2B, those companies who seek out creative solutions to maintain their workforces will have good foundations for weathering the protracted legal battle between seasonal industries and the government.