The Froedtert Hospital pharmacy handles thousands upon thousands of pounds of inventory each year – all of it needing to be stocked, sorted, labeled and distributed. When it comes to prescription medication, there’s no room for error.
Noah Franz manages the operation, and when he first learned a new program was coming to the hospital – one that gives people with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to intern in various departments – he happily got on board. It would be a good opportunity for his technicians to help the interns develop their job skills, he thought.
Once the interns joined his team, those initial expectations proved too low.
“That idea radically changed,” Franz recalled.
While the program did provide opportunities for mentorship and training, the interns soon became highly valuable assets to the team, offering the manual labor needed to make the operation run smoothly. In fact, Franz hired on one of the interns and, within a year, he outgrew the position he was hired to do.
“They are some of the most independent and accurate people that work for me today,” he said.
The pharmacy industry – like many health care sectors – faces an impending demand for workers in future years, as the population ages and the need for care rises. The increased demand placed on pharmacies has caused the role of the technician to expand. And with pharmacies now needing workers to complete the tasks technicians once performed – stocking, labeling and sorting – it’s left an opening for new workers.
Enter the Project SEARCH interns.
“They have filled a gap in our organization of entry-level positions that we can’t find today,” Franz said.
The internship program at Froedtert, called Project SEARCH – a nationwide model coordinated in Wisconsin by the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in partnership with businesses, schools, and vocational and disability services agencies – is offered at more than 25 sites across the state, including Kalahari Resorts in Wisconsin Dells, the Milwaukee County Zoo, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa and Waukesha-based ProHealth Care. About 85 percent of program interns in the state find employment after graduation.
“It’s about putting people to work; it’s not just a feel-good program,” said Gary Colpaert, vice president of clinical and support services at Froedtert, regarding Project SEARCH. “This is obviously a really great feel-good program, because you’re doing the right things and it matches our values. But it really is about putting people to work. And when you find somebody who is a great employee, who’s going to talk to your patients and colleagues with respect and learn something new, that’s just a win-win.”
Not just charity
As many industries face looming worker shortages, employers are beginning to view the employment of people with disabilities not as an act of charity, but rather as an important workforce development strategy.
And as Wisconsin’s unemployment rate drops to its lowest point in 17 years, the presenting challenge for employers is finding workers to fill openings. Conditions could be right for employers to begin adjusting their practices.
“In the short term, we have a perfect storm between a shortage of employees and the need, especially for part-time or semi-skilled employees,” said Bob Glowacki, chief executive officer of Easterseals Southeast Wisconsin. “… (Easterseals) is actually trying to feed the economy. We’re trying to make sure places like Amazon and Uline have employees they need for their factories.”
While Wisconsin has seen notable improvement in the unemployment rate among people with disabilities, the gap between that demographic and able-bodied adults persists. In 2015, the national unemployment rate for people with a disability was 10.7 percent, more than double that of those without a disability (5.1 percent), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet Wisconsin’s employment rate among people with disabilities of 41.2 percent outpaces the national average of 34 percent.
Gov. Scott Walker has made the issue a priority. In 2014, his “Better Bottom Line” initiative was launched in an effort to encourage employers to hire workers with disabilities. As part of the effort, the state expanded Project SEARCH, backed by $850,000 in funding to grow the program from seven sites to a total of 27 as of this fall. That effort has seen promising results, with nearly 9,500 individuals with disabilities having found employment because of it.
In fact, Wisconsin recently broke into the top 10 states for its employment of people with disabilities. The state moved up from No. 16 in 2010 to No. 10 in 2015, according to the University of New Hampshire’s Annual Disability Statistics Compendium.
Momentum may be increasing when it comes to the employment of people with disabilities, but such opportunities have not always been available to them.
Only in recent decades have people with disabilities found work in competitive integrated settings, thanks to the nation’s evolving disability rights laws and shifting employer attitudes.
For decades, sheltered workshops provided an outlet for people with disabilities to experience socialization, to have a safe place to go during the day, and to receive some – albeit sub-minimum wage – compensation.
In the 1960s, disability rights were folded into the civil rights movement and the establishment of laws to ensure protections for individuals with disabilities followed. For one, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provided equal opportunity for employment in the federal government and federally-funded programs, prohibiting discrimination based on physical or mental disability. Shortly after, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act ensured equal access to public education for students with disabilities.
Perhaps equally important has been the evolution of societal attitudes and beliefs related to the abilities of people with disabilities. The mainstreaming of children with disabilities in particular has helped destigmatize disabilities and foster more familiarity with them.
“People with disabilities have been mainstreamed and people are very comfortable with a person in the desk next to them having a disability,” Glowacki said. “We have the recognition that more people have challenges – and not just that they have a disability that people can see, but also invisible disabilities. Now, people are more comfortable having a person with a disability work with them because they’ve seen it their whole lives.”
As attitudes have changed, so have the expectations among those with disabilities for competitive integrated employment – aided by a host of services aimed at providing the training and coordination needed for them to be placed in the right job.
Ready to hire
Now, Glowacki sees the tide shifting, with employers seeking out help from organizations like Easterseals.
The organization recently hosted a “reverse job fair” at the Milwaukee County Zoo, during which employers were invited to rub shoulders with interns and see their job skills on display.
Elizabeth Strike was among the employers in attendance. A diversity and inclusion talent consultant at Associated Bank, Strike went in ready to hire.
Strike has had recent discussions regarding the employment of people with disabilities and veterans to reduce the turnover rate the company often sees in its teller positions.
“Hiring some of them that we met at the reverse job fair will help with that,” Strike said. “They have the skills we’re looking for and on top of that they’re stable, they will increase morale, they will reduce turnover.”
She left the fair having identified seven candidates for teller and IT positions.
As Associated Bank takes steps toward its goal of becoming the “employer of choice for individuals with disabilities,” it has established a new colleague resource network for individuals with disabilities, along with creating a more tailored onboarding process for those employees and raising awareness about disabilities in the company.
But the company has run into some challenges while launching the initiative, particularly the under-reporting of disabilities among employees.
“We sent out a survey to see who would disclose and only maybe five or six people disclosed that they have a disability,” Strike said. “So (maybe) they were afraid because we just established this network … . We’re hoping that our survey results will improve … because we want people to feel safe, we want people to feel that they can disclose a disability and we want to provide resources for them, as well.”
Glowacki said it’s common for disabilities to go unreported in the workplace, whether because an employee fears discrimination or because the employee simply doesn’t want to identify with a disability.
“I think there is a certain stigma in that ‘disability’ means I’m not successful,” Glowacki said.
A model employee
Every morning, Patrick Young is ready for work with impeccable punctuality.
A Tailored Label Products Inc. employee of nearly 12 years, Young works three shifts per week at the Menomonee Falls-based manufacturing company, where he primarily assembles products.
Young, who has Down syndrome, gets picked up in the morning by his coworker, Larry Harvey, who manages marketing and communications for the company.
“He’s always so excited to get in to work,” Harvey said. “He’s waiting there for me. I’ve never been there earlier than when he’s ready to go to work. He’s incredibly punctual.”
He’s also unparalleled in his efficiency. One of Young’s main responsibilities is assembling pizza boxes – a task he executes with incredible speed.
From his station on Tailored Label Products’ manufacturing floor, Young demonstrated on a recent afternoon a routine he’s repeated more than a million times. Taking a piece of flat, perforated cardboard, he makes a few quick folds and in the blink of an eye, he’s holding up the finished product, smiling.
He has even put his skills to the test, welcoming challenges from coworkers who want to race him. They haven’t come close to his speed.
Young’s colleagues are effusive about his performance and attitude. He’s a “model employee,” they said.
“Nobody can say a negative thing about Patrick,” said Nicole Richard, human resources director. “He’s reliable. He’s a hard worker. I think it has changed some mindsets about working with individuals with disabilities.”
“We’re as dependent on him as he would be dependent on us as an employer,” added Lindsey Muchka, a regional application engineer who’s supervised Young. “It’s not just a feel-good thing. He serves an important purpose here. He’s an employee through and through.”
In fact, the only challenge in supervising Young, Muchka said, is keeping his schedule full.
“What you think will take two hours might take 30 minutes,” Muchka said. “He’s very focused. If you give him a task, he’s going to do it and he’s going to do it quickly. The hardest thing some days is filling his day, keeping him busy.”
Meanwhile, for Young, his employment at Tailored Label has the meant the shift from dependence to independence. When he started with the company, he was living at home with his parents. These days, he has his own apartment and enjoys living his life in Menomonee Falls.
“I’m totally in the community,” Young said.
And that, Muchka said, illustrates the positive “ripple effects” of hiring individuals with disabilities – a significant return on investment for the community.
“He went from dependent to independent,” Muchka said. “And he now has the funds and ability to give back to the community where he rents and lives. He lives here, he goes to the gym here, he buys his groceries here, he benefits the companies that are also in Menomonee Falls. That’s a complete circle here.”
There’s evidence to suggest more employers are moving in the direction of Tailored Label Products and Associated Bank – making concerted efforts to recruit and retain employees with disabilities.
Beth Lohmann, employment and community services director for Easterseals Southeast Wisconsin, noted a recent call she received from a big-box store, seeking her help to train the store’s staff members who have disabilities. She considers that a shift in attitude from what she’s previously seen from employers.
“In the past, the employer would probably have let that person go because they couldn’t do their job,” Lohmann said. “But now they’re on the other side saying, ‘I’ve invested in this person.’”
At Tailored Label, Richard said, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and Easterseals have been a valuable resource in helping the company navigate the HR side of employing someone with disabilities.
“Once you dip your foot in the pond, you’ll find it’s not as scary as you think it’s going to be,” she said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for us and for them to make a good fit.”
For Young, it’s proven helpful to establish a designated group of mentors to whom he can go when he has questions or needs directions for his next task. If one person is unavailable, Young knows the next supervisor in line to help him.
While Tailored Label is a mid-sized company, Richard said these types of accommodations are scalable to larger and smaller operations.
“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” she said.
Lohmann encourages companies to think creatively about their job responsibilities. For example, could a full-time job be divided into two part-time jobs that play to different employees’ strengths?
“Sometimes when an employer is trying to hire someone, they want someone who can do everything,” she said. “So sometimes the first thought in their mind is, ‘That person can’t cashier, so they’re out,’ as opposed to splitting job functions.”
She also recommends rethinking the onboarding process for employees with disabilities. Rather than handing them a 10-page manual, why not offer a video tutorial instead?
Viktor Kreider was among the first round of Project SEARCH interns to go through Froedtert’s pharmacy rotation last year.
Kreider excelled at the tasks assigned to him and the hospital hired him on as a part-time employee following his internship. Initially, he was completing the distribution work technicians have become too busy to do, but he’s since outgrown the role and Franz is looking to fill that position with a new Project SEARCH intern.
“Viktor is now functioning at the level of an inventory technician for us,” Franz said.
So the department created a new position for Kreider, through which he has the opportunity to mentor the interns whose shoes he was in just last year.
In each of its hires, Colpaert said, Froedtert is looking for someone who will fit the hospital’s culture.
“We need people with special abilities, people who can take complex tasks and create standard work out of them, so it’s repeatable, it’s reliable,” Colpaert said. “We didn’t have context where we were hiring somebody with disabilities – we had a context here where we hired people with unique special abilities. And these folks have talent for being very accurate, following through and showing up on time, respect and courtesy, and a unique skill for wanting to learn. That’s right in our wheelhouse.”
Franz said finding the right employee for an opening simply requires an open mind.
“In the Milwaukee area, there is definitely a worker shortage,” Franz said. “And it’s easy to look at the surface and say, ‘Their communication skills aren’t great,’ … but if I were to speak to another employer, I would say look beyond the surface and see them in action and you will be blown away by their abilities.”
Meanwhile, Kreider, now in his tailor-made position, says he’s working at his “dream job.”