HUMAN RESOURCES: Supported employment a win-win situation

“It’s nice to meet you. So, what kind of work do you do?”

The speed with which many of us ask, and answer, that question is telling. Our work is more than a conversation starter, it’s about our identity and sense of worth, explained Betty Clark, clubhouse supervisor for Club Cadillac, a psychosocial rehabilitation program for people with chronic mental illness.

“How would you feel if you answered, ‘Well, um, I was in the state hospital for 15 years and then in a foster home for another 10?'” asked Clark. “When you can say you bus tables, greet and seat or clean the Armed Services’ recruitment office, it’s amazing how much taller and straighter you walk– with head held high, with confidence.”

Supported employment makes that a reality for many people. It encompasses support services such as job coaching, transportation, workplace accommodation consultation, and supervision.

According to 1992 U.S. Census Bureau figures, there are 49 million Americans with disabilities–those having difficulty performing one or more functional or daily living activities or socially defined roles or tasks. Though we often think of disabilities as being physical, they include mental illnesses and developmental disabilities as well.

The 1990 Census found that over 60 percent of working age Americans with disabilities are not participating in the work force. But a 1998 Harris Poll of Americans with disabilities found 81 percent of people with disabilities want to work.

They “want to live in their own homes; they want to have a job; they want to contribute something; they want what we all want,” explained Carrie Sutton, a registered social worker with Manistee-Benzie Community Mental Health (MBCMH) and formerly a community employment coordinator with Lakeshore Enterprises’ Job Connections, a MBCMH program that assists those with disabilities enter or re-enter the labor market.

People with disabilities represent an enormous untapped resource for employers seeking a capable, dependable labor force. Through supported employment programs run by northern Michigan social service agencies and non-profit corporations, many area businesses are discovering the benefits, which include tax and wage incentives, loyal employees, and a job well done and on time.

Steve Perdue is CEO of GTP Industries, a private, non-profit corporation that assists those with disabilities and other barriers to employment return to work. He says supported employment “expands the number of opportunities for people to become more dependent on their own work. They feel pretty good about it, and it’s motivation to work again.”

Supported employment motivates employers, too.

“It’s definitely enhanced our staff. On a scale of one to ten, it’s been a ten,” said Scott De Vries, general manager of Bob Evans restaurant in Cadillac, where Club Cadillac members have a variety of responsibilities, from outside gardening and kitchen prep to greeting patrons and busing tables.

At the Days Inn in Traverse City, work crews from GTP Industries strip linens, stock storage areas and maintain public areas of the hotel.

“It’s been an asset to us,” said Cheryl Baldwin, general manager of the hotel. “We gain the benefit of employees and it’s a good opportunity for these folks to get back into the workforce.”

Despite much success with supported employment and other programs, myths about people with disabilities persist:

Myth: Employees with disabilities have a higher absentee rate than employees without disabilities.

Fact: A 1990 survey conducted by DuPont showed that employees with disabilities are not absent any more than employees without. Supported employment programs, such as those of GTP and Club Cadillac, provide transportation for work crews to and from job sites. And according to Clark, when a clubhouse member can’t make it to work for any reason, she or a member of her staff fill in at no cost to the employer.

Myth: People with disabilities are unable to meet performance standards, making them a bad employment risk.

Fact: DuPont’s survey found 90 percent of workers with disabilities rated average or better in job performance compared to 95 percent for employees without disabilities. In a prior study, DuPont found that workers with disabilities rated higher in job performance than those without.

Perdue recalls one employer that was hesitant about hiring people with mental illness: “He was concerned. ‘Can they work? Are they going to be here?’ After working with them, he couldn’t wait until the next season to bring them back. We don’t ask for special treatment. Our job is to make sure we don’t take people in who don’t meet (the business’) standards.”

“If they can’t make money for the business, then they have no business being there,” echoes Clark, who as a job coach learns the job herself and then trains the Club Cadillac member or work crew until they have mastered the required tasks.

Myth: Considerable expense is necessary to accommodate workers with disabilities.

Fact: Often the “accommodation” is as simple and inexpensive as flexible scheduling or dividing a job into several tasks. At Bob Evans, a two- or three-hour shift “was really easy to accommodate,” said De Vries. “These types of schedules actually ensure higher standards at the peak times in our business.”

In Sutton’s experience, “Most people (without disabilities) would prefer not to have to work, or they complain about their jobs. Most disabled individuals want to work and are proud of their jobs,” she said. “Hiring an individual with a disability could be the best decision an employer ever makes.”

Bob Evans’ De Vries agrees. “I’d recommend it 100 percent of the time.” BIZNEWS