Tuesday, November 2, 2010

International Labour Organization recognizes Walgreens for making hiring people with disabilities a priority

From the Anderson Independent Mail. In the picture, Angela Mackey high-fives Michael Mobley in the “de-trash” area of the Walgreens Distribution Center in Anderson.

ANDERSON COUNTY, S.C. — Working goes beyond collecting a paycheck for many employees with disabilities at the Walgreens Distribution Center in Anderson.

For some, a job is a ticket to a new life.

“They have voices they didn't have before,” said Angela Mackey, career outreach coordinator at the center.

Since opening in 2007, the center in Anderson has been a symbol of possibility to a significant number of members of its work force. Currently, 184 employees out of 500 at the site have disabilities, and the International Labour Organization has taken notice of the company.

The United Nations agency promotes and protects dignity, equality and worldwide labor standards. The International Labour Organization is publishing a profile of Walgreens to be included with 25 other companies that make the hiring and retention of people with disabilities a priority.

Mackey can't think of a disability not represented at the center. People with autism, mental or physical disabilities, and who are blind or deaf all have a place to work there. Mackey, 35, was born with cerebral palsy.

“I think my own disability gave me insight into what would make our team members successful,” Mackey said.

A few extra details here and there foster that success.

Workers with special needs receive rewards for a good job. One employee with a cognitive disability loves horror movies, so his rewards are pictures of scenes from “Halloween” or Frankenstein movies.

Putting words into pictures with touch-screen software allows workers to use function keys instead of doing a lot of typing and reading. Large monitors show pictures of an open cardboard box in one bubble and then bottles inside of the box in another bubble. Photos of animals remind workers where their stations are, and flashing lights tell them from which lane to unload.

The pictures breed confidence.

At a “de-trash” station, Thomas Biggers unloads ibuprofen. He kicks empty boxes onto the conveyor belt with conviction. In a yellow cage across the aisle, workers sort pharmaceuticals.

Other details remind workers there is no distinction among them. On a wall adjacent to a wide doorway is the word “them” with a slash painted through it.

“There's no us and them,” said Larry Kraemer, human resource manager.

Despite the diverse work force, some things remain constant at the center.

“We have the same drama and issues with disabilities or not,” Mackey said, with a laugh.

Turnover is about the same for both groups. Mackey credits the center's success to partnerships with school districts, vocational rehabilitation programs all over the Upstate and the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind in Spartanburg.

“It really isn't a Walgreens thing, it's a community thing,” she said.

The center takes up a significant amount of space off Interstate 85. It sits far off Alliance Parkway, after a turn in the road, looking almost like an industrial castle. The multicolored, odd-angled building takes up 689,000 square feet.

The International Labour Organization is forming an organization that will assist businesses in training and hiring people with disabilities. Nationally, Walgreens already does that. Some of the companies that have come to Anderson to train include Best Buy, Clark's Shoes and Sears.

“They want to have companies around the world focused more on employing people with disabilities,” said Deb Russell, manager of outreach and employee services at Walgreens.

Walgreens employs disabled workers at all 14 of its distribution centers and also at return centers.

A manager from a Lowe's in Pennsylvania trained in Anderson, and the store now has about 180 employees with disabilities, Kraemer said. The International Labour Organization will pair Walgreens up with other international companies with hopes of similar results.

“We just want other companies to copy us,” Mackey said.

More would copy, she said, if not for one thing: fear.

“A lot of people with disabilities are on Social Security,” she said. “(Society) kind of cultures them to be on disability, so we feared they would work for six months and then quit because they miss their check.”

It's a chance Walgreens is glad it took, Russell said.

“We just needed to understand how to be a little more open-minded, and it gave us the opportunity to see the capability of people with disabilities,” Russell said.

Getting a job they never thought they could fill is a leap of faith, too, for workers and often leads to other milestones. Mackey has watched many of her co-workers move to Anderson, get married and start families - things that might not have happened had they not been hired.

“The opportunity is the hard part,” Mackey said. “Once you're given a chance, disability or not, you can prove yourself.”