Companies and organizations that employ people with disabilities to help fulfill client logistics needs have a broad mission to help their people stay employed. But they know they can’t do that unless they’ve got a good business model.
“We’re very good at what we do,” says Eric Gerarden, general manager of ProSolutions, which is connected to the non-profit NEW Curative Rehabilitation in Green Bay. ProSolutions might convince a manufacturing company to try them out simply because of their mission, but “unless you’re actually able to meet the business need, you’re not going to be able to build those business relationships and keep that business long term.”
More than 9 percent of Wisconsin residents of working age have a disability, and a third of those have a cognitive disability, according to the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities. In August, the National Governors Association at its 105th Summer Meeting in Milwaukee encouraged states to work with businesses to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and Wisconsin is already on the way.
This year, the state has added 22 business services consultants to act as liaisons between the business community and the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR), which among other services works with people with disabilities as well as community work centers.
The state is looking broadly at the needs of employers and manufacturers to see where the opportunities are for training and preparing people with disabilities to enter or re-enter the workforce, says Scott Schlicher, the business services consultant for the department’s office in Green Bay.
While DVR is focused on helping people find independent employment, it does work with community work centers to help people with disabilities prepare for that employment.
Many of those kinds of centers, such as Lakeside Packaging Plus, are geared toward general hand labor such as assembly and fulfillment, hand packaging, collating, boxing and poly-bagging, which can accommodate people with different skill levels.
“Our goal is that people are able to self-determine the type of vocational support they want to have, and so it all becomes very individualized,” says Margaret Winn, executive director of Lakeside Packaging Plus, which has locations in Oshkosh and Neenah, and also employs a casual workforce to help meet orders when necessary. Lakeside was J.J. Keller’s 2006 Vendor of the Year, Winn says.
“Customers would generally come to us when they have increased production demands, limited space and/or limited employees, or higher priorities that are demanding their attention,” Winn says. “And that allows us to do the meticulous detail on things that can’t be automated.”
Rob Senner, production planner at Independent Printing in De Pere, has been working with Lakeside Packaging for 10 years.
“There are many reasons – reliability is one, quality is another – and for me and the type of work that I manage, the quality must be 100 percent correct. I know there’s usually 100 percent inspection of their work in their facility,” Senner says.
The turnaround time and pricing also keep Independent connected with Lakeside. “We as a company never try to whittle down our vendors as far as price goes, but we have a price point that we need to meet,” Senner says. “Typically they’re always able to meet that price point. And by doing that they’re able to keep their employees working, which is job one.”
Community work centers like Lakeside receive a mix of local, state and federal funding to help employ people with disabilities, some of whom will move on to employment elsewhere. For-profit companies that choose to hire people with disabilities receive some financial incentives such as tax relief based on a worker’s wages, and sometimes training and support from agencies such as the DVR.
ProSolutions is a wholly-owned subsidiary of NEW Curative Rehabilitation, but shifted to for-profit status in 2011 because it had experienced strong growth on its business side. The company is still governed by a volunteer board, so profits still aid NEW Curative programs, Gerarden says. The company now employs a mix of people with disabilities and without, about half and half.
“If you look at the business model that most organizations like us were founded under, our main goal is to provide training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities, so we’re very good at creating that environment, creating opportunities for people to be very successful,” Gerarden says. “We’re able to take that workforce and get an awful lot out of them because of our experience in working with different populations and people of different functional levels.”
Gerarden challenges other companies to at least explore the idea of hiring people with disabilities and finding opportunities to make it work. Talking with workers and supervisors at ProSolutions can help convey what kinds of obligations there are and what might need to be done differently.
“I look at just the vast number of companies that are in our region, and if we could get a small percentage to consider somebody with a disability, the unemployment level for people with disabilities would drop,” Gerarden says. “And (companies) would find that they’re getting a very productive, loyal, energetic and very thankful employee.”
A CLOSER LOOK
STEP Industries gives workers another chance
Finding work after dealing with substance abuse issues can be difficult. However, STEP Industries of Neenah has been helping people overcome that obstacle for 31 years.
“We hire newly recovered alcoholics and drug addicts,” says Michelle Giese, president of STEP Industries. “Generally, people have gone through treatment or are currently in treatment and we’re here as the next step of rebuilding their lives back together.”
The company not only gives recovering addicts another chance at entering the working world, but provides training such as proper workplace etiquette.
“We teach people the basics of individual accountability – what the rules of a regular workplace are, how to dress for work, how to talk in the workplace, what expectations are for regular jobs,” says Giese.
STEP Industries offers a range of services for clients. “Anything that is labor-intensive,” Giese says, such as packaging, assembly and modification.
The average stay for an employee is between four and six months, but the company allows workers to stay for as long as they need or want to. The number of employees the company has ranges from 60 to 140. Currently there are 95 employees.
“Afterward, they will hopefully go on to a better job,” says Giese. “Fifty-five percent of our employees find another job or go back to school.” –Sean Lyons