Tuesday, June 22, 1999

'Challenged people who can meet challenges'

Tight job market a boon for disabled

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Joel Carpenter, left, and Ray Rich load food trays into a machine at Eastgate Printing in Lebanon.
(Dick Swaim photo)
| ZOOM |
        Meg Melampy had stuffed help-wanted fliers into Wendy's restaurant bags and set up booths in local schools to attract potential employees. The sign at the Wendy's restaurant in Landen offered hourly pay of up to $8, nearly $3 more than the minimum wage.

        And the restaurant manager still had five spots open.

        Earlier this month, Miss Melampy turned to an unusual employment source: the Warren County Mental Retardation & Developmental Disabilities (MRDD) office.

        Greater Cincinnati's 3 percent unemployment has created a tight labor market, and employers like Miss Melampy must be more creative in finding workers. As a result, mentally retarded and developmentally disabled adults are experiencing a time of unprecedented opportunity all across the Tristate, said officials from area MRDD and private agen cies.

        “In the past, some employers weren't interested because of their perception of our clients,” said Gene Johnson, a job placement specialist with the Clermont County MRDD. “Now that they're struggling, they're calling us.”

        The budding relationship benefits employers, who can take down the help wanted signs, and taxpayers. As mentally retarded and developmentally disabled workers receive salaries, they pay taxes into the system and reduce the need for county-supported training and supervision.

        Two years ago, Brian Bridges, 26, landed his first — and only — job with the help of training from the Warren County MRDD.

        At the Ralph J. Stolle Countryside YMCA in Lebanon, Mr. Bridges greets members, scans their cards and collects money from guests.

        “It makes me more of an adult, I think,” said Mr. Bridges , who lives in Waynesville. And it “gets me out of the house,” he added. The $5.50 an hour goes into the bank.

        MRDD wants to emphasize the message that its clients are a viable employment option, regardless of the economic climate, said Robert Jennings, spokesman for the Ohio Department of MRDD.

        “Our folks have some real skills and offer an alternative to the general labor market,” Mr. Jennings said. “I think it's a win-win situation.”

        But the tight labor market isn't all good news, said Kim Kremer, supported employment manager at the nonprofit agency BAWAC, in Florence. She has found it easier to place clients in entry-level jobs, but higher-skilled positions remain elusive.

Resource for employers
        Many employers have more than one spot open and need a worker who can get up to speed immediately, she said. In some cases, employers don't have the time to train or the patience to accommodate a longer adjustment period.

        Even as MRDD and private agencies revel in the attention from employers they once desperately sought, they know they must cement their position as an employment resource.

        “There's always the concern that when the economy changes, are we going to be the first to go,” said Debbie Smith, director of employer services at a WRC ... The Work Resource Center. The Cincinnati nonprofit agency seeks employment for a variety of clients, including adults with disabilities.

        “Our efforts are not only to get employees hired but also to keep them on the job,” Ms. Smith said. “We want to be seen as a resource for employers, no matter what the economy is like.”

        At Eastgate Graphics in Lebanon, the first call to MRDD was motivated by a dire need for employees; the second call came after plant manager Gary Hunt was impressed with the job performance of MRDD clients.

        When the company relocated from Wilmington, Ohio, to Warren County in March, Mr. Hunt couldn't fill the $7-to-$10-an-hour jobs.

        “I was running ads in every paper you could think of,” he said. “I couldn't find people willing to work.”

        He turned to the Warren County MRDD. Today, a third of his 30-worker production line is manned by MRDD clients. He's been so pleased with their work that Mr. Hunt already has asked MRDD to staff a new machine when it comes on line.

        While Eastgate contracts with MRDD for a group of workers and a supervisor for long-term employment, some are looking to MRDD agencies to fill a temporary crunch.

        Betty Griffith scouted for employees to work a six-week stint in Clermont County, but came up empty. For the first time, Ms. Griffith, a customer service representative for the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services office in Batavia, called the MRDD.

        “I hadn't really thought about it before because there were options within the traditional labor force,” she said. “With the labor market so tight, nobody wants to work for $7.”

        The difficulty in finding employees also has led to an increased flexibility by employers, said Greg Townsend, adult services director for the nonprofit New Horizons Rehabilitation, which serves Dearborn, Ohio, Ripley and Franklin counties in Indiana.

        Employers are more willing to accommodate the needs of clients, he said, such as changing work schedules, encouraging car pooling and even paying for another employee to provide transportation to a New Horizons client.

Workshops declining
        The increased interest from employers comes at a time when the trend is to increase the number of clients in the workforce.

        In Ohio alone, the number of mentally retarded or developmentally disabled adults working in community employment has doubled in eight years, from 4,075 people in 1991 to 8,193 in 1998, Mr. Jennings said.

        Employment in workshops, minifactories operated by MRDD boards, has declined 8 percent.

        “There are no new workshops in the state,” Mr. Jennings said. “Community employment is the future.”

        In 1998, 400 MRDD clients in Hamilton County earned $2.1 million in the workforce and paid $250,000 in taxes. The taxes paid into the system didn't cover the full cost of training and support provided by the MRDD, but “instead of being a tax user, they're a taxpayer,” said Karoll Miller, the county's director of adult services.

        MRDD spends an average of $12,300 per year for each client in a workshop, but the amount drops by half after a person is fully trained and in the workforce for three months.

        Employers may be eligible for tax credits. Some can get up to $2,000 in tax credits for each employee with disabilities they hire.

        Other benefits of placing MRDD clients in the workforce can't be measured by cost savings and tax paying, argues Kelly Cornett, a job placement specialist with the Warren County MRDD. At the Countryside YMCA, front desk supervisor Vivian VanDriel took some heat two years ago when she gave Brian Bridges his chance as a receptionist.

        “People didn't like that we'd hired someone in a wheelchair,” she said. After a few months, the complaints stopped, and the praise started.

        Now, for many of the young kids, it's a special routine to hand Mr. Bridges their membership card for him to scan. At Christmas, his desk overflowed with gifts.

        “Not everyone in God's world is perfectly shaped,” Ms. VanDriel said. “This teaches children that not all of us are the same shape and the same way.”

        The job helped Mr. Bridges break out of a shell of shyness, Ms. VanDriel said, and provided the Y with a conscientious employee. It also taught everybody a lesson:

        “There are challenged people who can meet challenges,” she said.


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