Natural Foods Merchandiser

Working with disabled employees a 'win-win'

by Hilary Oliver

An on-the-job welding accident in an underground tunnel left Phil Lapinskas with impaired hearing and an off-kilter sense of balance, making re-entering the work force a daunting task. But with help from a nonprofit rehabilitation program and an open-minded natural products retailer, he went from depending on a walker during two- to three-hour weekly shifts to becoming a fully proficient part-time foodservice employee, shedding the walker as he gained stamina.

"He stood up in our annual meeting to share his story with people, the importance of the opportunity that was given to him. Now he's working with trainees," says Scott Duennes, executive director of Cornucopia, parent company of Lapinskas's employer, Lakewood, Ohio-based Nature's Bin.

Nature's Bin is not only a natural products store, it's a nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities learn vocational skills and find gainful employment. But even if your store isn't a nonprofit, hiring disabled people can benefit both your company and its employees. "It makes good business sense," Duennes says.

Making the connection
How can you connect with disabled potential employees and provide a fair, mutually beneficial work environment? By using local resources and remembering that every employee, disabled or not, has different limits.

Every state government has funding for rehabilitation programs for the disabled, including vocational training and job placement. Free to the employer, job coaches with government-funded agencies can help set up an interview and even help the new employee learn the job and transition socially into the workplace. "I think people should embrace this as another way to recruit people," says Nancy Taylor, director of human relations for the PCC Natural Markets chain in the Pacific Northwest. PCC often works with local agencies to hire disabled employees.

Provident Horizon Group Creative Employment Options, based in Yakima, Wash., uses community resources to promote employment opportunities for the disabled. Debbie Peters, a self-described "job developer" with Provident Horizon, helps connect companies to disabled clients with specific skills. "Our people take jobs that most people don't want," Peters says. "Our people really want to work— there are a lot of picky people out there— [our clients] are not as picky."

Duennes agrees. "These people are so happy to have a job that they're so loyal— very dependable … it obviously reduces turnover in some entry-level positions."

Publicly funded agencies can also provide continuing education as you manage your disabled employees. "The biggest piece of advice I have," Duennes says, "is to get assistance from professionals out there— at no cost to retailers— to get people started on the right foot."

Managing for equality
How do you manage employees with disabilities? "Not any differently," Duennes says. "You have to toss out any group-based assumptions and treat every employee like a unique individual."

One key, Taylor says, is having good ways to give feedback, and giving lots of it. "Make sure you meet with them often," she says. Making expectations very clear, and making sure other employees are aware of what's expected of your disabled employees will help things run smoothly, just as with any other new hire.

Treating disabled employees the same as everyone else will help avoid issues such as perceived favoritism, Duennes says. "Sometimes what begins as a good intention can take a disastrous turn," he says. "You don't want to make exceptions or ask, ‘How should I treat this employee differently?' They still need to be evaluated."

Taylor reinforces that idea. "The most important thing is to treat them like everyone else. … I've learned a lot," by working with disabled people, she says. "Any employer who uses their community resources can add another element of dedicated, hard-working employees to their workplace."

"It's a win-win situation," Duennes says, pointing out that giving opportunities to disabled people fits well into the mindset of the natural products industry. "Reaching out to the community really fits into that world."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 6/p. 38

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