Maryland employers value workers with disabilities, but slow times dampen hiring -- Gazette.Net


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Glenn Kapuscinski raves about Bill Weidenbruch, who since 1979 has worked at the Giant Food supermarket in Potomac that Kapuscinski manages.

Weidenbruch, who works full time as a courtesy clerk — handling parcel pickups and greeting customers — is “an ambassador to the community,” Kapuscinski said.

It doesn’t matter a bit to Kapuscinski that Weidenbruch has a disability. To the contrary, Weidenbruch is an especially consistent employee and is well-liked by regular customers of the Cabin John Road store, Kapuscinski said.

“He’s always moving, working — I call him the mayor of Potomac,” he said.

But Kapuscinski, whose store currently employs nine people with disabilities, including one hired this year, is among the shrinking number of employers hiring such people, say advocates for these individuals. Overall higher unemployment rates sparked by the Great Recession have hit people with disabilities especially hard.

The national unemployment rate for people with a disability was 15 percent in 2011, compared with 8.7 percent for those without a disability, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The overall unemployment rate was 8.2 percent in June.

The jobless rate for people with a disability was about the same in 2011 as in 2010, while the rate for others fell. The federal agency does not track data for individual states, nor does it have data from before the recession.

The disparity illustrates what Dide Cimen is up against. Cimen is director of vocational supports for Community Services for Autistic Adults and Children, a Montgomery County nonprofit that provides support to people with autism. She’s seen a reduction in work opportunities for the people she works with, especially in the summer, when college and high school students also are competing for jobs.

Some employers have told her agency that business is slow and that they’ve trimmed their work forces, meaning some of the agency’s clients were let go and had to seek other work, Cimen said in an email. Ayda Sanver, executive director of the organization, declined to name these employers.

Premium on multitasking

When money is tight, employers tend to reduce staff and look for one employee who can multitask, to replace the two or three they might have had previously, said Deborah Mark, director of communications and outreach for The Arc Montgomery County.

“Employers have less room for someone holding an entry-level position or someone who has mastered a small set of skills,” Mark said in an email. Multitasking is generally more difficult for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, she said.

The nonprofit’s clients have been hit hard by the recession and slow recovery, she said. The Arc has four county custodial contracts that affect about 30 people, and all four contracts have seen a significant reduction in hours. Job growth has been minimal, meaning fewer openings for clients, she said. Mark declined to name the contractors that reduced hours.

Last year, 33 percent of individuals with a disability usually worked part-time, compared with 19 percent of other workers, according to federal data. The decision to work part-time generally wasn’t theirs, according to the agency: Their hours had been cut or they couldn’t find a full-time job.

But even the part-time jobs — such as data entry, filing and facility maintenance — formerly available to people with developmental disorders have been filled by full-time employees, said Susan Ingram, executive director of Community Support Services. The Gaithersburg nonprofit provides vocational assistance, among other services, to people with severe intellectual disabilities.

Many employers also have switched from offering paid work to offering work on a volunteer basis, to her clients’ detriment, Ingram said.

“When the perception starts that this work is only valued on a volunteer basis, it’ll take a lot of work to view it as worthy of being paid, even once the economy improves,” she said.

‘They’re proud to have a job’

Giant Food, whose regional headquarters are in Landover, has weathered the economic slowdown fairly well, and has been able to hire new employees both with and without disabilities, said spokesman Jamie Miller. In 2008, the company was named Employer of the Year by the Marriott Foundation Bridges from School to Work for its role in employing people with disabilities.

Bridges from School to Work was established in 1989 by the Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities. The family of J. Willard Marriott, founder of Bethesda hotel giant Marriott International, created and supports the foundation.

The foundation’s program helps people ages 17 to 22 — most of whom are recent graduates of high school special education — transition into the workplace. Tad Asbury, its vice president and executive director, said the program has felt the effects of the recession.

“We often see people with disabilities as the last hired, first fired,” he said. “That’s absolutely what we’re seeing in this down economy.”

Still, he said, those in the program have benefited from the relative resilience of the service sector, where many of them land their first jobs. In a conversation with a potential employer, the individual’s disability ideally shouldn’t even come up, Asbury said.

“We’re walking in any saying, ‘Here’s a person who can do the job,’” he said. “Sometimes employers will say, 'Well, what's wrong with them?' And it's like, What's wrong with any of us? What's right with any of us? Let's focus on what they can do."

Foster Bennett of Silver Spring has worked as a bagger at the Giant Food store on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda for four years. Bennett, 28, said the job has been beneficial for his Williams syndrome.

“Williams means things go slowly for me,” Bennett said. “But here, I have to work fast to keep the line moving — it’s helped me a lot.” He plans to continue to work at the supermarket, but hopes to start working outside, moving carts and helping customers carry their bags.

His friend found him the job at Giant, and he feels lucky to work there, he said.

“I always wear my Giant hat,” Bennett said. “When people see you wear your Giant hat, they know you’re proud to have the job. I’m very proud to have this job.”

(Disclosure: The Gazette also contracts with people who have intellectual disabilities to help distribute newspapers.)

McDonald’s, which has seen success despite the sluggish economy, hires people with learning disabilities as hosts, french fry cooks and drive-through operators, said local franchisee Gerry Gimelstob, whose nine franchises employ a total of about eight people with disabilities. His employees with disabilities are among his best workers, he said.

“The last person I’d ever cut would be someone with a disability,” Gimelstob said. “So much of society is looking for handouts, but people with disabilities are really willing to work. They're proud to have a job.”

In fact, although employers that hire people with disabilities receive tax breaks, Ingram said that tends to come as more of an afterthought in the hiring process.

“Employers think, 'I want someone working who's enthusiastic about the job,' and workers are proud to work alongside someone with disabilities," she said. “It’s a good business practice.”

scutler@gazette.net