© 2018 Chicago Tribune CHICAGO — When Glynis Harvey and Mark Cagley opened Hidden Manna Cafe four years ago, the couple did not set out to hire people with disabilities.
But then a social service agency asked: Might the Matteson restaurant employ a woman with cerebral palsy? How about a man with mild blindness? A customer asked for an application for her sister, who has an intellectual disability.
Harvey and Cagley were good people to ask. They have twin sons, now 28, with autism, and so they understood how difficult it is for people with disabilities to find jobs. They also knew how hard they worked once given the chance.
“As long as you are willing to work,” Harvey said, “we are willing to work with you.”
Falling unemployment rates among people with disabilities suggest more employers are adopting a similar mindset. The tight labor market is pushing companies to open their eyes to this untapped pool of workers, who employers say are loyal, enthusiastic and able to do the job as well as anyone — sometimes even better.
The unemployment rate among people with disabilities dropped to an annual average of 9.2 percent in 2017, the lowest it has been since the government started tracking it a decade ago and down from a high of 15 percent in 2011, when the nation was grappling with the fallout from the Great Recession, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Dan Strick, president and CEO of the social services agency New Star in Chicago’s south suburbs, has seen an uptick in employers hiring people with intellectual and developmental disabilities over the past 18 months, which he attributes in part to the tight job market.
“Employers who we have tried to reach out to in the past who didn’t seem to have much interest, now that they are hurting, they are having a more open mind,” Strick said.
To be sure, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities remains double the rate for people without, and two-thirds of working-age adults with disabilities are not in the labor force at all, meaning they’re not working and not looking. Transportation hurdles are a persistent challenge, as are misconceptions about what people with disabilities are capable of doing. But as more companies that hire workers with disabilities report great rewards, the practice is spreading.
Not just a feel-good step
Some of the progress is coming from large companies that are turning to people with disabilities to fill a range of jobs.
The professional services firm EY in January plans to open a NeuroDiversity Center of Excellence in its Chicago office, where it will hire 10 to 15 people to work in internal analytics, automation and cybersecurity. EY currently has 25 employees working in similar centers in Philadelphia and Dallas, most of them on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.
“There is a tremendous and viable population out there,” said Hiren Shukla, leader of the program. Retention since launching three years ago has been 100 percent. EY’s employees with autism, some of whom have advanced degrees, tend to be hyper-focused and learn twice as fast as a typical worker, Shukla said. But many were previously un- or underemployed because they avoid eye contact or have other communication or social quirks, he said.
Few accommodations have been necessary, though the work environment is kept consistent and mindful of employees who are sensitive to light, sound or temperature, Shukla said. The jobs pay $40,000 to $60,000 per year.
Adapting to the idiosyncrasies of people with autism has been good for EY’s broader employee population, Shukla said. The visual learning aids developed for center employees have proved useful for all employees. Managers also have become more conscious of how they communicate, because people with autism tend to be very literal.
“It has trained us to be much more specific and clear when we talk to any audience,” Shukla said. “At the end of the day, doesn’t everyone want clarity in the workplace?”
Deerfield-based Walgreens runs a program for people with disabilities in all its distribution centers, where job candidates learn warehouse procedures and are then considered for jobs.
“It started out as something that was kind of socially responsible, but really turned into a high-productivity initiative, because these folks stay longer, don’t miss work and retention of these employees is higher than folks without disabilities,” said Carlos Cubia, Walgreens chief diversity officer. “It’s really helped the bottom line in a number of ways.”
Still, finding employment for people with disabilities isn’t easy.
Mark McHugh, president and CEO of Envision Unlimited, a Chicago nonprofit that serves people with disabilities, said his offers to provide employers with candidates are still met with a polite answer that human resources will look into it, and then silence. Employers are often fearful of the liability, worried that people with disabilities may be more prone to injury, McHugh said.
“The No. 1 piece of feedback we get in our client surveys is that they want to work, and it’s not there,” McHugh said. Transportation is also a challenge, as many clients don’t drive and many jobs aren’t accessible by public transit.
People with cognitive disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome, who comprise a third of the 1.4 million individuals in Illinois with disabilities, historically have had the toughest challenges, although they are seeing employment gains. Illinois had an 11 percent increase in employed people with cognitive disabilities between 2011 and 2016, the most recent period for which state data are available.
Many of those with disabilities work in part-time jobs. Still others work in workshops that employ only people with disabilities. Federal labor law allows employers to get permission from the U.S. Department of Labor to pay workers with disabilities less than minimum wage, a system opposed by advocates who call it unfair and antiquated.
“As the country continues to debate over raising the minimum wage, we still have people with disabilities doing the work for pennies an hour,” said Sara Hart Weir, president and CEO of the National Down Syndrome Society. Nearly 12,000 Illinoisans with disabilities earn subminimum wage. The median annual earnings of a person with disabilities in Illinois is $22,089, compared to $35,506 for people without disabilities, according to 2016 American Community Survey data.
The Down syndrome group is working to move a bill through Congress that would end subminimum wage. In Illinois, a House bill to phase it out failed in committee in April, and a similar Senate bill is now in the committee process.
Mike Briggs, president and CEO of Little Friends in Naperville, which runs a program that gives subcontract work to people with disabilities, said subminimum wage offers those with disabilities the chance to make money and feel a sense of purpose, even if they can’t work at the same pace as some of their peers.
The long-running debate about subminimum wage comes as Illinois implements a 2014 executive order to be an “employment first” state, meaning the first option for people with disabilities should be competitive employment, integrated in the mainstream community, that pays at or above minimum wage. To get there, advocates say there needs to be more investment in supportive services, like job coaches, and customized plans that respect the skills and interests of individuals to ensure they succeed.
The state’s employment-first efforts include bolstering the ability of service providers to prepare individuals for competitive jobs and educate employers about why they should hire them, said Tania Morawiec, who manages employment first for the state’s Department of Human Services.
But it is difficult to change mindsets, not only among employers but also among people with disabilities and their families, who worry that earning too much money will threaten their government benefits like Medicaid or Social Security income, she said. Many people don’t know they can access free specialists to advise them on programs that preserve their benefits, Morawiec said. They also can create tax-advantaged ABLE accounts that allow them to save money without threatening their benefit eligibility. Before Congress approved ABLE accounts in 2014, owning more than $2,000 in assets was grounds for having disability benefits taken away.
‘My co-workers help me out’
Arnetha Vance, 46, who has cerebral palsy, since high school has worked in a workshop run by New Star, which has contracts with companies that need labels fastened onto plastic bottles or nuts screwed into bolts. The workshop job pays about 3 or 4 cents per piece.
But three years ago a New Star job coach helped Vance get a job at Hidden Manna Cafe, where she spends Tuesday and Thursday afternoons refilling condiment trays and doing other tasks, for $8.50 an hour. Vance enjoys both jobs, her favorite part being “getting to know other people.”
Vance, slim and smiling, limps slightly as she moves from table to table at the Matteson restaurant, with a tray full of jam packets in her left hand and salt and pepper bottles cradled in the crook of her right elbow. She can’t use her right hand much, but it helps stabilize the shakers as she refills them. When she had trouble rolling the silverware into napkins tightly enough, her boss arranged for her to fold the napkins and have the servers do the rolling.
“If I need help, my co-workers help me out,” said Vance, who lives with her sister in Ford Heights and takes a Pace bus to work. “The people here mean the world to me because they’re sweet.”
Five of Hidden Manna’s 26 employees have disabilities, including the owners’ twin sons. Harvey and Cagley, who opened the Cajun-Creole restaurant after retiring from the Chicago Transit Authority, say “we try operate in love with everything we do.” A doormat near the entrance is inscribed with their motto: “We Hug Here.”
The twins, Michael and Matthew, have blossomed, Harvey said.
“My anti-social behavior has opened up,” said Matthew Cagley, who buses tables and works the host stand. He never liked to look people in the eye because he didn’t think anyone would be interested in talking with him, but he’s learned from practice that some people do.
Erica Coachman, 40, who has an intellectual disability, comes promptly whenever she is needed to wash dishes, clean or help in any other way. She is training to be a line cook.
“If I could clone her, I would,” Cagley said.
Coachman, who walks to work from her home in Park Forest, appreciates the kind environment. At other restaurants where she worked, people could be mean.
“I want to stay here,” Coachman said when asked about her career ambitions. “Whatever they want me to do, I’ll do.”
Industries that have not traditionally hired people with disabilities are starting to explore the possibility. Take manufacturing, which is facing a skills gap as the workforce ages.
“We need to look at truly identifying the skills needed and matching skill sets, and not be restricted,” Maria Moran, regional manager at IMEC, a group that helps Illinois manufacturers stay competitive.
Moran has been connecting manufacturers with Chicago-based Autism Workforce, which helps companies adapt job descriptions and work environments for people with autism.
Brennan Manufacturing, which makes industrial products in the southwest suburbs, is working with Autism Workforce to identify an administrative position that can be adapted to a person with autism, President Terry Thomason said.
The company had two college students with autism as paid interns over the summer.
“The biggest difference is that (the job) is a little more structured and narrow than it might be otherwise,” he said. Thomason believes welcoming people with autism will be good for company culture, as employees become more aware of how they treat people and communicate.
At suit manufacturer Hart Schaffner Marx in Des Plaines, which was Autism Workforce’s first major client, CEO Doug Williams said the emotional impact of hiring people with special needs has been the biggest boon.
“A sense of well-being, a sense of giving back, a sense of understanding,” said Williams, who has a son with autism. He has hired seven part-time employees with autism and invested in making his operation a model for hiring people with disabilities.
As Hart Schaffner Marx moves its factory to a new site half its size and consolidates its shipping out of Ohio, it is eliminating its Des Plaines distribution staff, which includes two people hired through the autism program.
But the experience has offered a steppingstone to other opportunities.
Erron Gerstein, a 25-year-old Vernon Hills man with autism, conducted inventory audits for the suit company. When he heard about his impending layoff, he resigned and, with the help of his sister, found a new job as a facilities assistant at Paylocity, a payroll software company in Schaumburg. The job is full time and offers benefits.
“I want him to have the opportunity that everyone else has, with benefits and full time and company activities,” said his sister Rachael Lane, a human resources generalist at Paylocity.
Gerstein, who drives, is excited “to interact with people my own age.” He said he is capable of more than people realize, and looks forward to new challenges.
“I think I’m going to do this one day at a time to see where life takes me,” he said.
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