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Weekly Alibi Handicapable: Employing the Disabled

How ARCA and Honeywell Have Teamed Up to Give Jobs to the Developmentally Disabled

By Dennis Domrzalski

JUNE 5, 2000:  At some companies it could be a cause for celebration, after-work booze fests and spontaneous outbursts of "Thank God," "Finally," and "Good riddance!" from employees and bosses: The announcement that an employee is leaving the company for another job.

But Monica Hussey, a supervisor at Honeywell's sprawling Albuquerque plant has seen just the opposite reaction when some of her employees have moved on. Fellow employees have been saddened and angered by the loss.

"Our production team members really took a great deal of pride [in the departing employees] and were angry that they left," Hussey, head of team development at the plant, said.

What makes those employees so special that their loss is grieved?

They are hard-working, productive, conscientious people who take pride in their work and are thrilled to have a job. They are "consumers," or disabled people, people who in years past were referred to as "retarded." They are sent to Honeywell through a unique jobs program/alliance that Honeywell and other area companies have with the Association for Retarded Citizens of America (ARCA). The purpose of the program is to train the mentally-disabled to work, to take care of themselves and to eventually live independent lives. Right now, ARCA is working with 21 area companies and has placed 51 people in part-time jobs throughout the community.

"It has worked out very well" since Honeywell signed up for the program in September 1999, Hussey said. "They more than adequately meet our needs. The other benefit that comes out of it is that our employees are happy to see that our workplace has a place and a need for people with disabilities, and they are proud of that.

"It is both touchy-feely and a win-win situation, and at the same time it makes sound business sense. The individuals have been very devoted and committed, and they are good at it. It does warm your heart, and at the same time it makes great business sense."

Two Jobs Programs

ARCA was formed in 1957, primarily to offer residential living services to people with mental and developmental disabilities. But ARCA now runs two jobs programs for the developmentally-disabled. The first, in which Honeywell and 20 other companies participate, is called Support Employment; the other is known as the Day Program. The Support Employment program sends the disabled out to area factories, restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses to work. The "consumers," as they are called (according to ARCA, the term replaces the more demeaning "clients" title used formerly), generally work a four-hour shift. They are screened, selected for jobs, and counseled by job coaches. The coaches ensure that the consumers show up for work, are properly trained to do the job, understand the company's safety rules and manage their lives. The job coaches also instruct company officials and other employees about the particular needs of the disabled.

The Day Program is anchored at one of ARCA's locations at 1503 4th NW. Here, 32 people hired by ARCA do everything from clerical work to assembling and packaging items. ARCA contracts with several area companies with available work, and consumers are paid according to their abilities. The program is designed to teach the disabled job skills that will help them lead independent lives.

"Our hope is to move people out of a sheltered environment into a community job, so we work on improving their work skills and, hopefully, we can move them into the Supportive Employment part of the program," said ARCA Employment Services Manager Liz Hamel. "The purpose of the job coach is to facilitate the person becoming comfortable and learning the job and working with the employer and the coworkers to assist the person who is to be integrated into the job. Eventually, the coach slowly fades, until the consumers are on their own. With the Day Program, they are able to earn a paycheck while working on their skills, and they have a place to go while they are looking for a job."

Honeywell's Consumers

Out on the floor of Honeywell's cavernous West Side plant, ARCA consumers Brian Onarheim, 32, and Antionnette "A.J." Jojola, 27, are busy working their four-hour shifts. They are doing work that many people might find repetitive, boring and unfulfilling: helping to assemble switches for the many home and building climate-control devices that Honeywell makes. They slide a metal plate smaller than a fingertip onto the base of the press, and then place a tiny metal rivet on top. They then push two buttons on the side of the press; the top of the machine comes down and secures the rivet into place. The machine's safety features require that both buttons be pressed simultaneously; it won't work otherwise. This work requires patience and a steady hand, for the rivets are small--about twice the size of a pinhead. The work also requires speed and dexterity, because, as the press head is returning to its uppermost position, the plate must be removed, put into a box, another one grabbed out of another box and put into place on the machine. The two workers each make about 1,300 plates in a four-hour shift.

But to Onarheim, who uses a wheelchair due to muscular problems, and to Jojola, who suffers from Prader-Willi Syndrome (a life-threatening eating disorder), the job is a thrill.

"I love it. I love being here," Onarheim said. "I used to work for Norwest Bank. I was working in the phone bank, and they closed down the office. I'm usually in a wheelchair, but when I heard about the job, I said, 'Let's give it a shot.'"

Onarheim was saving his money from the job for a special day. "My money is going into the bank. I'm getting married. It is going towards that," he said.

Jojola said the job was "easy to do." She liked it better than the job she had at Bugle Boy. "I make more money, and I have more hours; I work more days a week than I did at Bugle Boy," she said. And what did she do with her money? "I put it in the ARCA bank, and I'm saving up for Christmas."

Honeywell Accommodates

Both Onarheim and Jojola live in ARCA group homes. They and ARCA's other consumers generally get to work on the city's bus system, particularly the SunTran system which serves the disabled. This creates a bit of a problem for companies, as neither SunVan nor SunTran operate round-the-clock. It was only last month that SunVan began operating its buses past 6 p.m. on weekdays. Honeywell, however, made accommodations. "Our shift typically starts at 6:30 in the morning, and the earliest we can get anybody out here is 7:30, so we have modified the shift [for the consumers] to start at 7:30," Hussey said. Both Onarheim and Jojola worked the 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. shift.

At Honeywell, where workers must put on special clothing before going on to the manufacturing floor, safety training is a big issue. ARCA's consumers had to take the safety training program that all other Honeywell employees take. But once during a training session, the enthusiasm of one ARCA consumer showed why companies must be taught about the disabled. Hussey explained: "It was her third day on the job. She was sitting in a training session, and all she could think about was, 'I've got work to do,' and she walked out saying, 'I've got work to do.'"

Safety at Honeywell is important, and the four consumers working for the company must perform safety checks on their machines at the beginning of every shift.

There are other accommodations that Honeywell and other companies must make for the consumers. Honeywell is an ideal place for people with Prader-Willi Syndrome to work. No food or beverages are allowed on the manufacturing floor, so there is no food around to tempt those with the disorder. Even in this highly-controlled environment, however, things can go wrong.

For instance, Jojola managed one day to find someone with a tray of cookies either in the lobby or in one of the areas off the manufacturing floor. At one point, Jojola jumped up and down "and 10 cookies fell out of her clothes," Hussey said.

Job Coaches

The responsibility of ensuring that consumers like Jojola learn the job and conduct themselves as professionally as possible falls to ARCA's job coaches. The coaches must also educate employers about the special requirements involving hiring the developmentally-disabled. JoAnn Astorga is a coach handling the consumers at Honeywell.

"We do job developing. We look at different places where we feel a consumer can work," Astorga explained. "If we feel that something is possible then we will approach the company and make an offer."

At Honeywell, the job of getting consumers into the plant was relatively easy: "Usually ARCA is trying to solicit business and asking companies to accept these types of workers in the work place. I think it was unusual in that we said, 'We need you,'" Hussey explained. "What got us in this position was the local labor shortage. We were having trouble getting enough people through a subcontracting agency. I happened to have a friend in ARCA, and I was talking to her one day and she said they could do something like arranging for a carpool. We arranged it, and management said 'absolutely,' and ARCA was out here in 24 hours. From the time I made the phone call to the time we had people working out here, it was two weeks.

"We ended up solving a short-term problem and wound up getting long-term gains. I am so proud and pleased of how well these individuals have been received by all of the people here. It has gotten to the point [that] if they are not here, people will approach me and ask where they are."

Once a company has agreed to hire consumers, it is up to coaches like Astorga to teach the new workers the rules of the game.

"My duty is basically to make sure the consumer is doing their job correctly and to help them stay on task," Astorga said. "How to do their locker, how to put on safety gear they have to wear, how to quality-test their work, how to test their equipment to make sure it is working properly, how to transport themselves by bus. If there are problems, I step in. My job is to teach them as much independence as possible. The whole idea is to wean them away so they can do it on their own. We have people who are able to make it on their own. One I have is at Country Harvest. She takes the bus and lives on her own. When she first started out, we had to have somebody come in and help her with her budget and money.

"We also train people and employers to understand the disability the consumer has."

Affection and ...

At Honeywell, the four ARCA consumers give something to the plant that goes beyond the 1,200 pieces they churn out each day. They are thrilled to have a job and treat it with enthusiasm and respect.

"Their enthusiasm is infectious. They are very proud of what they do, and they want you to know how much they do and to always be at their best," Hussey said. "They take a great deal of pride and they really feel included when they're invited to a celebration or a barbecue. It makes them feel like they are part of society, like they are accepted."

But there is something of a downside to employing the consumers. Sometimes they leave for other jobs and they are missed. Two consumers who had been working at Honeywell when the Alibi visited the plant have since left.

"There will be some turnover," Hussey said. "You will not get somebody and necessarily have them for life. Sometimes they need to move on. Our production team members took a great deal of pride, and some of them were angry that they had left, so we had to do some re-education with them and tell them that they are going to see some cycling and moving through. We told them it has nothing to do with us or with them. I would say that our employees are quite protective of these individuals."

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