Monday, August 24, 2009

Disabled workers feel job squeeze

From PressConnects in Binghamton, N.Y.:

It can be tough to get a job in today's economy.

It can be even tougher to get a job when you have a disability.

Community Options, a nonprofit agency on State Street in Binghamton, helps people with disabilities secure jobs. But not just any jobs. Jobs that pay minimum wage or better in a variety of workplaces - not just in warehouses and "sheltered workshops," where many of the other employees also have disabilities.

Not only do people with disabilities often battle stereotypes about what they can and cannot do on the job, but layoffs at a number of area businesses are adding to their already challenging job searches, said Danielle Frazier, employment director at Community Options.

"I know some Lockheed Martin folks who are taking customer service jobs making $7.50 an hour," Frazier said. "These are not jobs they would traditionally take. They're taking jobs that they're overqualified for, creating more competition."

That's squeezing out job opportunities that could be available for the people Community Options helps: People with developmental disabilities, cognitive impairments, traumatic brain injuries and injured veterans returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some have high school diplomas and master's degrees, Frazier noted.

But while the nation's unemployment rate was 9.7 percent in July, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 15.1 percent for the same month, according to the state Labor Department and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Both agencies said they did not have state or regional unemployment figures related to people with disabilities.

"We spend a lot of time in the community doing job development and basically begging employers to give one of our participants a chance," Frazier said.

So far this year, about 140 people with disabilities have used some type of employment service at Community Options in Binghamton, Frazier said. For the same period last year, the department helped about 80 people with disabilities.

Services for workers with disabilities include help with resume writing, getting job leads, practicing job interview skills, finding appropriate outfits for interviews, obtaining transportation to work and providing job coaches when needed to assist at the employer site, Frazier said.

"Our people don't want to be dependent on public assistance," she said. "They want to work. They want to pay bills. They want to live on their own, just like you and me. They just need a chance."

Community Options said it has placed clients in places such as law offices, restaurants, stores, movie theaters, schools and museums.

"We do not believe in the sheltered workshop concept where someone is doing piecework and making a couple of cents per piece," Frazier said. "We don't want to pigeonhole people and say you have 'xyz' disability, so you're only capable of doing 'xyz' job."

She offered this example: A client wanted to be an airline pilot. But his traumatic brain injury impeded his ability to reach that goal. Community Options took him to Greater Binghamton Airport, where officials there ended up offering him a job cleaning aircraft.

"We're going to help them get as close to reaching their goal as we can," Frazier said. "We don't want to jam them in a minimum wage job just to get them a job."

Community Options often learns about job openings by attending Rotary club and chamber of commerce meetings, and from members of its community advisory board, which includes people from area businesses, said Paul Weckel, executive director of Community Options.

"It puts us in with the folks who are looking to hire," he said.

The agency has found that some employers are nervous about expressing any concerns regarding hiring someone with a disability, Frazier said. Fears have included the idea that the person with a disability will need intensive training or be physically unattractive.

"Behind closed doors, one of the things that an employer told me is that they're not used to it," Weckel said. "Folks with disabilities are thought to work in places where like-folks work."

But Frazier noted, "Surveys have shown that most consumers are more likely to shop or patronize a business that does employ people with disabilities."

RE/MAX Renaissance Realty in Vestal is one local business that has worked with Community Options to hire an employee.

Anita McKendrick (pictured), 41, of Johnson City, has worked as an office cleaner at the real estate office since May. She said she had previously searched for a job on her own but had a difficult time finding work.

"There was never an issue," said Steve Day, vice president of operations at RE/MAX in Vestal. "We just welcomed Anita with open arms."

The Enhanced Training Program, offered through the New York Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, pays McKendrick's salary for 18 months with the understanding that RE/MAX will hire her after that time, Day said.

A job coach provided by Community Options joins McKendrick at work about once a week to help her adjust to and learn the job, he said.

"We don't have to go out and train somebody," he said. "The plan is to retain her as an employee once she knows the job. The goal is have her by herself."