Sunday, December 5, 2010

In N. California, program works to train, find jobs for disabled people

From The Record-Searchlight in Calif. In the picture, Red Lion Hotel Director of Human Resources Catherine Littlefield congratulates Laron Allred on Wednesday after offering him a job as a house attendant. Allred, who has ADHD and major depression, said he looked for work for two years.

As an employment specialist, Traci Caten makes sure employers know her name. “I’m out there in the community a lot, so when somebody needs an employee, they call me,” she said.

At Premier Solutions, Caten works to find jobs for people with mental disabilities, and she said she will help her clients as much as possible to remove the barriers they encounter when entering the workforce.

Similar to Premier, the Opportunity Center, a division of Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency, helps people with disabilities find employment. It has seen an increase in clients in the past two years when the economy began to falter, according to the manager, Del Lockwood.

Nationally in October, people with disabilities ages 16 and older had a 14.8 percent unemployment rate compared with people without disabilities at 8.8 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. BLS also reported Redding had a 15.2 percent overall unemployment rate in September, ranking in 10th place out of 372 metropolitan areas with the highest unemployment. Last December, the unemployment rate in Redding was close to 16 percent.

Although the center serves an array of disabilities, Lockwood said employers are still scared to hire someone considered disabled, but they shouldn’t be.

“I think the public likes when they see an employer hiring someone with disabilities,” Lockwood said.

As an example, Lockwood cites a blind man getting a job at Carl’s Jr. as a cashier. He used a register with a Braille overlay to punch the orders in and customers placed their bills and change in a cash reading machine. Other cashiers were ready to serve, but Lockwood said the customers lined up for the blind cashier since they were fascinated by how he did his job without his eyesight.

“Once they can see this person is polite and can give good customer service, then they’ll hire them,” Lockwood said. “They’ll see their enthusiasm and loyalty, and that they can be a great employee.”

About 25 clients take advantage of the training classes provided by Premier. Because everyone starts and finishes at different times, the number varies, and there’s a waiting list for qualified clients. One mandatory class is Job Club where clients learn essential tips such as writing an effective résumé and answering questions at an interview. Other classes include cooking, landscaping and auto shop.

Though clients usually take classes for eight to 10 weeks, Kim Terkelsen, who has a mental disability, continues to sharpen her skills despite starting there last May. Wearing a golden 49ers sweatshirt with jeans, Terkelsen, 40, said she’s been unemployed for 11 months, and for as long as she could remember, this is not normal for her.

“I always worked,” Terkelsen said. Hilton Garden Inn, La Quinta Inn & Suites and Red Lion Hotel were some of her former employers.

When she started her training workshops at Premier, Terkelsen realized she could seek a job in a field that interests her. “I want to work with old folks,” she said. While living with her parents, she remembers volunteering at a health center in Fortuna, and how much she enjoyed working with the elderly.

Now, she volunteers two to three times a week at Marquis Care at Shasta in Redding where she helps with social events varying from giving manicures to bowling. There aren’t any open positions Terkelsen can apply for right now at Marquis, so she still finds herself applying for other jobs.

When Premier posted new openings on its job board, Terkelsen said she applied to “all the jobs that were put up.” She sent applications to Target and Kmart among other stores trying to attain an hourly position, especially during the holiday season.

She said she plans to apply for more jobs while waiting for her almost yearlong unemployment spell to end. “I’ve learned a lot here,” she said. “But I really need a paid job. Anywhere I can find a job.”

One of the Opportunity Center’s job developers, Rosalie Ruiz, helps prepare clients with everything from designing a resume template to sprucing up their professional wardrobe.

“It’s a tough market. Having a disability makes it much harder,” Ruiz said. “The competition’s really stiff, but some of them are getting hired.” On average, the center helps 40 people a year gain outside employment.

Ruiz is working with Laron Allred, who spends three days a week volunteering at the Salvation Army testing and approving donated electronic items to gain experience. Because he can’t afford a car, Ruiz drives him to what Allred said is “just about everywhere in town” to turn in his resume. Some of these places include Walmart, Kohl’s, and Holiday Inn. If hired, he will be able to reach these places by public transportation.

Originally from Idaho, Allred always held down a job. Whether it was at the potato processing plant or in the field, he worked. “It didn’t pay nothing hardly. But you didn’t have to interview for that,” he heartily laughed.

But now Allred, 49, who has major depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, has just passed the two-year mark of being unemployed. In October, men with a disability had an unemployment rate of 16.6 percent, almost doubled the rate of men without a disability, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

After a divorce in 2006, Allred moved to Redding to help his mother and find work. Almost immediately, he received a part-time janitorial position at J.C. Penney. Sweeping floors, cleaning restrooms and dusting shelves paid Allred’s bills until his hours plunged to one day a week due in part to his contracting company’s financial decisions.

“I quit,” Allred said. “They would really give you a lot of hours, then cut back.” Frustrated with the contractor yo-yoing his hours, he realized he was unemployed in one of the worst economic times in recent history.

Though he gets a check from his Social Security Disability Insurance, he said he’s scraping by. “I just got food stamps,” he said. He limits his grocery bill to $50 a week because he still has to pay rent and utilities.

“It’s been tough,” he said. “It’s tougher to not have a job than to have a job. Looking for a job is a job. Too bad you can’t get paid for it.”

The past two jobless years are winding down for Allred as he recently received a job offer at the Red Lion Hotel. He’s in the pre-employment phase. Once he starts, the center will provide him a job coach.

Even though she’s entering a tough job market, Denise Cooper still wants to work. She’s excited to wear a new gray blazer that Ruiz helped her pick out, so with her new professional appearance, she said she’s ready.

“I want to be normal again. I’m very active. I can’t just watch TV all day,” she said. Fifteen years ago, Cooper opened her eyes from a three-month coma. She learned she had survived a car accident in Oakland so severe that she was thrown from her car. She doesn’t remember the accident, but she does remember making a living for years as an assembly machinist with a seventh-grade education.

When she moved to Redding with a family member, Cooper, now 45, said she wanted to gain independence even though she used a wheelchair. After 11 years, she was able to get out of the wheelchair, and she’s been using a four-prong walking cane for the past four years. Last May, she graduated from Shasta College with an associate degree in journalism with an above B average despite not having gone to high school. She said her path has led her to a goal she’s passionate about.

“I’d like to help disabled people, so they can go forward in life,” Cooper said. “They still have the brains God blessed them with, but they just need help using them.”

With her college education, she plans to help people with disabilities master their reading and writing skills at the We Care A Lot Foundation, which works with people with disabilities from Far Northern Regional Center in Redding.

“A lot of them are afraid,” she said. “I want to teach them they can learn. It’s really something to help somebody reach a goal.”

She said she feels more confident working with the Opportunity Center. “They encourage me the right way to handle an interview. It’s great we have these agencies to help us. We couldn’t do it on our own. It helps boost my confidence a lot,” she said.

She’s had her setbacks though.

“I think they didn’t hire me because I have one hand and a speech impediment,” she said of one place where she recently applied. “I’m pretty good using one hand. Maybe not as good as someone with two hands, but I’m still good.”

After getting married six years ago, both hers and her husband’s disability checks were cut due to their combined income, and the costs of living are mounting. “They cut Medi-Cal, so you have to pay for your eyeglasses and dental work, so it’s tough,” she said. “I hope to get a paying job soon.”