Sunday, December 5, 2010

Beach tags needed in Cape May, NJ, help employ people with disabilities

From The Press of Atlantic City:

CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE, N.J. — Beach tags produced by a Cape May County nonprofit have been pinned to the bathing suits of almost everyone who has paid to be on a beach in New Jersey.

They also are worn by condo-association members in Texas for pool privileges and given out to guests at beach-themed weddings as novelty gifts. The federal government even bought some to track horseshoe-crab migrations.

Now, more beach badges are being manufactured in the off-season with holiday themes intended to be used as gifts.

The Jersey Cape Diagnostic Training and Opportunity Center makes about 3 million tags and badges per year. They are made by some of Cape May County’s disabled residents, many of whom might not be able to find work elsewhere.

Starting last year, Jersey Cape Diagnostic added holiday-themed beach tags and handmade gift boxes to entice towns to order some tags before Christmas while creating work for employees.

“The most important thing for us is we have a number of disabled people who come to work here every day,” said George Plewa, Jersey Cape’s executive director. “This is our slowest time of the year here. We were looking to develop a product to create work during these slow times.”

Jersey Cape Diagnostics, located in the county’s Crest Haven Complex, is the hub of New Jersey’s beach-tag manufacturing, making tags for 43 municipalities in the state — from Cape May County to Monmouth County, said Ed Willson, production manager.

Founded in 1972, Jersey Cape has been making beach tags since the late 1970s, Willson said.

Tracy Robbins, of North Cape May, is one of about 80 county residents with varying degrees of disability who work at tables, snapping together beach tags and attaching safety pins.

“Good people, good boss,” she said.

Some disabilities are so severe that some people can only put together 100 or so a day, while others can do 3,000 or more, Plewa said. They are paid per tag, about 2 cents per tag, which Plewa said is based on federally approved methodology based on what an able-bodied person can do per hour.

The tags are inked on a hot-stamp machine that sounds a rhythmic thump throughout the day.

“The stories today about people being unemployed are pretty sad and upsetting to many people,” Plewa said. “I think all of us having somewhere to go to work and be productive and feel valued is important, and it’s no different here.”

But finding work year-round for employees has been difficult, particularly in an area that lacks industrial and packaging and assembly-type work, Plewa said.

The amounts towns and groups pay for beach tags varies usually from 21 cents to 57 cents depending on quantity, thickness of plastic, colors, designs and other variables, Plewa said.

The ghosts of summers past are part of the decor that fills the trophy-case-style glass shelves in its lobby.

An American-flag style beach tag from 2002.

A Miss Cape May Pool Winner button.

And rows of old beach tags — some simple white or bright colors, some elaborate with images of summertime — that many of the state’s coastal towns sell by the thousands each year.

Jersey Cape Diagnostics has been trying to branch out, not only going after different markets but also offering different versions of its existing products. The nonprofit makes about 1,600 different versions of tags for different events, purposes and functions.

Some are for private condo associations, campgrounds and swimming pools around the country.

After updating its website and placing ads through Google in the past year, Jersey Cape added 40 new private clients, including ones in Texas and Indiana, Willson said.

The nonprofit also had a contract with U.S. Fish and Wildlife to make tags with identification numbers used to track horseshoe-crab migration patterns.

November and December had been a relatively slow time at the workshop before adding holiday tags.

Some towns — such as Avalon, Longport, Margate and Toms River — order special holiday tags.

The prevalent picture this holiday season is a sprig of holly. Stone Harbor has specially designed badges with an image of Santa in a bathing suit.

The holiday-themed tags and gift boxes have added some work. The demand for them increased moderately over the past year, Willson said.

Avalon ordered 800 of the holiday beach tags this year. Last year, they ordered 600. The seasonal tags started selling for $20 each on Black Friday.

“Demand is really strong for these,” Avalon spokesman Scott Wahl said. “We’ve ordered 800 of them, and we’ll sell 800 of them.”

The holiday tags represent about 2 percent of the total seasonal tags Avalon sells, said James Craft, Avalon’s chief financial officer.

For the second year, Jersey Cape Diagnostic has been making tiny Christmas-wrapped boxes for those tags — a box with a see-through plastic window designed to add some aesthetic appeal to the present.

Last year, Jersey Cape Diagnostic made 3,000. This year, they have orders for 4,000 pieces from 11 municipalities, Plewa said.

To find more business, the firm has gone beyond beach tags.

They produced 10,000 buttons for Ocean City’s upcoming First Night and manufactured pins for the traditional Anchor Bowl rivalry football game between Middle Township High School and Lower Cape May Regional High School.

Jersey Cape Diagnostic brought in a total $1.8 million in the fiscal year from July 2008 to June 2009, according to federal tax filings.

“We are now the biggest plastic tag manufacturer of that kind in the country,” Plewa said.