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A New Work Force

A bakery worker with mental retardation and visual perception problems had trouble placing cookie dough in precise patterns on a cookie sheet. The employer made a plastic template with holes to indicate a pattern. Cost: $50.

As a result of diabetes, a retail worker was experiencing fatigue and needed time during the day to take her medication. She had difficulty performing her sales duties for a sustained period. The employee's schedule was altered to allow for a longer meal break and for brief breaks during the day to administer medication. Cost: $0.

A data-entry clerk with agoraphobia had difficulty traveling during peak traffic hours. Her work schedule, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., was changed to 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Cost: $0.

Employers who move beyond the misperceptions of working with people who have disabilities are discovering the many business benefits of tapping into this vastly underemployed labor pool.

By hiring people with physical limitations, mental retardation or mental illness, many of the nation's retail and foodservice companies are finding relief from a chronic labor shortage and high turnover rates, while improving their store-level operations and realizing a significant return on investments.

"There are still many stereotypes and barriers to employment, but doors are opening," said Cindy Thomas, coordinator of employment for the Institute for Community Inclusion, a Boston-based organization that assists people with disabilities. "The [labor crunch] caused employers to look at people they didn't look to in the past."

And none too soon. Regardless of the dips and turns the economy takes in the next few years, demographics foretell a work-force shortage as Americans age.

In 1998, baby boomers comprised 53 percent of the nation's work force, mature adults another 21 percent, noted Todd Campbell, diversity initiative manager for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), based in Alexandria, Va. "The total number of job openings due to new job growth and replacing workers who are leaving their jobs is 55 million. Employers need the untapped market of people with disabilities."

According to some estimates, by 2005 the United States will need 151 million workers. Unfortunately, only 141 million people will be in the labor market.

That number stands in stark contrast to Harris 2000 poll figures, which revealed a huge gap between the number of people with disabilities and those in the traditional work force who have jobs. Among adults with disabilities of working age, 32 percent work full time or part time, compared to 81 percent of people without disabilities. Similarly, The Urban Institute released a study last year that found only 37 percent of the estimated 11.3 million working-age adults with disabilities who were able to work in 1994-95 were actually working.

"Many people with disabilities can do the work, with or without accommodation," Campbell said. "Hiring them makes good business sense."

Even so, more than half of the adults with disabilities who participated in The Urban Institute study reported difficulties when looking for a job. The most frequently cited reasons for being discouraged were: no appropriate jobs available (52 percent); family responsibilities (34 percent); lack of transportation (29 percent); no appropriate information about jobs (23 percent); inadequate training (21.6 percent) and a fear of losing health insurance or Medicaid (20.1 percent).

Getting to Work

To boost the rate of employment among those with disabilities, a strong network of federal, state and local agencies and educators is working with em-ployers to debunk long-standing myths. These include as-sumptions such as people with disabilities don't want to work; an employer's insurance and other costs will rise; the cost of accommodating these employees is prohibitive; and these employees can't perform as well as others. People with mental illness suffer from even more egregious stereotypes. (See "Greater Challenges for Employees with Mental Illness," Page 26.)

"Misperceptions, rather than real problems, are the barriers to hiring," said Susanne Bruyere, director, Program on Employment and Disability, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

In a 1998 survey by Cornell University and SHRM, more than 800 employers in the private and public sector cited "lack of experience" as the number-one reason they don't regularly hire people with disabilities. Gaining that experience, however, isn't easy, as attitudes toward hiring employees with disabilities have been slow to change — "supervisor knowledge of accommodation" and "attitudes or stereotypes" also were among the most prevalent barriers cited. Among the common misperceptions: employees will have more chronic health issues, be less productive or be problematic in other ways. "That simply is not borne out in reality," Bruyere said.

Small Cost, Big Reward

Success stories are becoming easier to find. An educated employer who overcomes the misperceptions will find the actual cost of accommodating people with disabilities is not that significant. Only one-third of non-working people with disabilities in The Urban Institute study reported the need for some type of accommodation in the workplace. The most common accommodations cited were accessible parking or an accessible public transit stop nearby (19 percent); a need for an elevator (17 percent); adaptations to a work station (15 percent); special work arrangements, such as reduction in work hours, reduced or part-time hours or a job redesign (12 percent); handrails or ramp (10.4 percent); a job coach (5.6 percent); and specific office supplies (4.5 percent).

What's more, the majority of employers polled in the Cornell/ SHRM study already were making accommodations for employees with disabilities. More than half of the employers in the private sector had made their facilities more accessible (82 percent); had a flexible human resource policy (79 percent); restructured jobs or work hours (69 percent); made transportation accommodations (67 percent); provided written job descriptions (64 percent); modified the work environment (62 percent); and modified equipment (59 percent.)

Another 82 percent provided wheelchair access. Forty-five percent were flexible in the time given to takes tests and 43 percent provided communication access for hearing-impaired employees.

"Most accommodations cost nothing, such as giving someone time off to go to a doctor's appointment or writing instructions down — or not writing them down and giving them verbally," noted Randee Chafkin, program manager for Project Employ, a Washington D.C.-based effort between the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy and SHRM.

Sixty-nine percent of accommodations made by employers cost $50 or less. For every dollar invested in accommodations, businesses report an average return of $20.09, she noted.

Giant Food Inc., operator of 180 Giant and Super G supermarkets, began hiring and accommodating people with disabilities long before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. The retailer developed a fair employment policy 20 years ago. Royal Ahold, Giant's parent firm since 1998 (as well as the operator of more than 300 Golden Gallon, Wilson Farms and Sugar Creek convenience stores), also has a diversity mission statement.

"In the mid-1970s, a young man who was in a car accident and confined to a wheelchair visited us at our headquarters. He wanted the right to shop in our stores without relying on other people and asked us to convert a store so that he would have accessibility," remembered Barry Scher, vice president, public affairs for Giant Food, based in Washington, D.C.

In response, Giant Food converted a store in Virginia, installing a bathroom to accommodate a wheelchair, moving a checkout counter and providing a ramp and handicapped parking space — all things now standard under ADA. "We learned it was good business to provide accessible features," Scher said.

Over the next couple of years, the chain converted a number of stores and looked into hiring people with disabilities.

One long-term staffer at a Giant Store in Bethesda, Md., uses an electric wheelchair to return orphaned products to the shelf and cleans the store with a broom. A number of staffers with mental retardation work in the parcel-pickup area of the stores. "This is not 'make-work,'" Scher said. "They are doing jobs we need filled."

The biggest problem Giant Food has had to face when hiring people with disabilities is the occasional lack of understanding by a customer or co-worker. "We have found that giving this person a mentor — usually another employee in that store — or bringing in a job coach, such as a staffer who works for us or someone from an agency, is very helpful," Scher said.

Among the accommodations Giant has made over the years are adjusting the schedule of a person with lupus, to prevent that person from getting fatigued; eliminating assigned parking in the corporate garage to allow physically challenged staffers easier access to the garage elevator; or giving hearing-impaired employees vibrating pagers because they can't hear regular store pages.

The chain also has expanded the training period and stays very flexible with testing procedures for new hires with attention deficit disorder or other disabilities.

Job Carving

In many cases, employers and agencies, such as the 8,500 job placement programs across the country, are successfully creating jobs out of existing positions that need to be filled. "There may be challenges in the convenience store environment, but one way to approach [more inclusive hiring] is to look at all the jobs in the store to see if they can be grouped differently," said Steve Eidelman, executive director of The ARC, the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for people with mental retardation. "Do a job analysis. See if two part-time people with different skills can do the job. Like any other group of humans, people with mental retardation have wildly varying abilities."

Areas in which an employer is struggling may be organized differently, making jobs more accessible, while the work is done more efficiently, added Thomas. "Maybe an employer has a task that needs to be done once a week for six hours — perhaps magazines need to be removed from the shelves and covers ripped off. Can this job be done by someone with a disability?"

7-Eleven Inc.'s Northeast Division has had great success hiring special-education students from a local high school. They work in some of the division's corporate stores and in the regional office performing specific tasks tailored to their abilities.

"Over the last several years, the number of store vacancies outnumbered the number of available traditional workers in the Northeast. We are motivated to find nontraditional sources of labor and try to accommodate any special need that may be an obstacle to employment," explained Peter Konkle, a human resource generalist for the chain's 578-store Northeast Division, based in Brockton, Mass. "There have not been as many obstacles as one would expect."

The biggest obstacle, Konkle said, was the long-standing belief that all entry-level employees had to do all tasks. "One key is to break out of the inflexible staffing model to imagine how an individual might be able to contribute to the work that needs to be done at a specific store, during a specific daypart," he said.

"Having a person who is capable of and responsible for doing one set of tasks, such as maintaining the coffee island, has contributed greatly to the smooth operation of the store during peak hours," he said. "Facing displays and cleaning up spills are important and require labor that may not be available during rush hours, yet the students come in and perform the necessary tasks and free up the other employees to do the work that needs to be done simultaneously. There is a benefit to having targeted tasks done, leading to better customer service, and routine aspects of certain jobs delegated to people who were challenged by and derive satisfaction from them."

The Brockton school district's primary goal is developing skills for the students, to help them become productive adult members of society. A school district employee acts as a job mentor, helping to train the students in the stores and acting as a liaison between the student, his family, 7-Eleven and any other agencies involved.

"Our goal is to place the students where they will have continued long-term success," said Karen Mongello, of Brockton Public School District, noting there are a number of federal and state tax and other incentives available for retailers who hire people with disabilities. Public funding partially underwrites the students' hourly wages, for instance.

There is no reason to believe these students won't be long-term employees, Konkle said. "If the job fits with the personal life of the student, as long as they are interested and available, we will have work for them. There is no limit to what an individual will be allowed to do. It just depends on what each individual is capable of doing. If one of these students can go into a more capable job, great."

Most of 7-Eleven's customers appreciate the local store providing employment and development opportunities for the special-needs students, he added. "The joy and pride evident in the faces of the students doing something of value is contagious."

The chain is looking to expand the company's inclusive hiring policy, according to Monica Warner, a 7-Eleven recruiter. Warner is working with a local rehab center and has met with a potential employee who has cerebral palsy. "We are expanding our efforts into different towns and to hiring adults," she said. "We've had no problem with any of the agencies we have contacted."

Added 7-Eleven's Konkle: "This is not a public relations gig for us. The return on our investment is excellent. Even if it weren't for tax breaks that come along with hiring people with disabilities, it would still be a good business approach."

When hiring a person with physical or mental disabilities, it is important to keep to the company's normal work standards, experts agreed.

"We take a strong approach: We don't want people with disabilities hired out of charity," Thomas said. "They should be hired because they can do a good job."

Treating a person with disabilities with kid gloves does more harm than good, she added. "One of the biggest challenges I have is employers not dealing directly with issues when it involves a person with a disability.

"If an employer has a concern about how an employee with disabilities is performing a task or interacting with a customer, and he'd normally give any other employee feedback but is not comfortable giving feedback to a person with a disability, that is not a good situation. It makes other employees think the person is not pulling his own weight. Plus, it is unfair to that employee, because he can't change something he doesn't know is wrong," she said.
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