Americans with disabilities are finding new leverage in a tight job market
Colton Channon needed just 90 minutes each day.
Every morning for about a month, in training designed for him, the high school senior with an intellectual disability practiced making steel brackets for trucks at a Des Moines, Iowa factory. The skill took more than a few tries to master. But his co-workers, he said, cheered him on.
A supervisor stayed close, showing him how to pack the parts neatly into boxes that would ship to Ford, Honda and General Motors. And the effort produced something the 20-year-old once deemed distant: A job offer he could see turning into a career.
As the nation's unemployment rate nears the lowest point in 50 years, sinking in May to 3.8 percent, companies are searching more widely to fill vacancies. Advocates say the labor shortage, coupled with growing openness to workers with mental and physical limitations, has brought record numbers of people with disabilities into the workforce - and it has also pushed employers to adopt more inclusive practices to support the new hires, such as longer and more hands-on training.
Over the past year, the jobless rate for workers with disabilities has fallen at a faster rate than among the general population, dropping 2.7 percentage points, from 9.5 percent to 7 percent.
At the same time, the share of working-age people with disabilities in the United States who are employed - a historically low figure - hit 29.7 percent last month, up 1.7 percent from a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"Firms are more likely now to reach out in places they've never reached out before," said Andrew Houtenville, research director of the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire. "They're also customizing jobs for people who might have previously been left out of the labor market."
In Channon's case, Dee Zee Manufacturing, a truck and SUV accessory-maker, offered personally tailored training during school hours and held a job for him after graduation in May, paying $10 an hour. (Channon said he requested a part-time role until he gets used to the work.)
Channon, who reads at a seventh-grade level and took five years to complete high school, had worried he would have to settle for a job like his first one, which he dreaded: washing dishes at a grocery store.
"I've worn a Dee Zee shirt every single day since I started," Channon said. "I love being part of it."
Jackie Harvey, a production manager at Dee Zee, said the average hire starts on the assembly line with written instructions for the part they're expected to make. A co-worker "buddy" is assigned to answer their questions for a week.
Channon required a little more investment.
"You've got to go a little slower," said Harvey, who oversaw his training. "You've got to explain things a bit more thoroughly to make sure he understands why it is the way it is: You put this clip on this brace because it mounts onto the truck, and then the screw goes up through there."
Dee Zee officials said the arrangement was partly motivated by Iowa's worker drought, and partly by its desire to attract workers who will stay with the company.
At 2.3 percent, the unemployment rate in greater Des Moines is far below the national average of 3.8 percent. Dee Zee faces tough competition for workers from other plants.
More than 500 manufacturing positions are open in the area, according to Indeed, a jobs website, including at John Deere and wind turbine-blade plants.
"If somebody wants to work and they want to be here," said Corbon Kinney, a talent acquisition consultant at Dee Zee, "that's the type of person we want working for us."
Filling jobs can take months, he added, so the company seeks workers who will stick around for decades.
"We do have to think outside the box," Kinney said.
The National Organization on Disability, which tracks hiring trends, said that 62 percent of employers in its 2018 survey of 200 companies had adopted "leading practices" in training and technology for staffers with disabilities, up from 57 percent in 2016. Firms are partnering with local organizations that support people with disabilities, drafting policies on recruiting such individuals and hiring senior leaders to monitor their retention.
"Companies are looking for untapped talent pools," said Miranda Pax, NOD's director of external affairs. "There's an increased awareness that they can recruit from this population."
The moves toward a more inclusive workplace have also given momentum to the push to outlaw the practice of paying disabled employees below federal minimum wages in sheltered workplaces.
Over the past four years, Alaska, Maryland, Vermont and New Hampshire have banned employers from paying workers with disabilities below the minimum wage. New York has proposed a similar measure.
That's why the number of employees at companies that are certified to pay these "sub-minimum wages," in particular, has fallen to 164,347 from 256,203 in 2015, as states phase out the practice.
Meanwhile, some companies are discovering the benefits of a more inclusive workplace, said Michelle Krefft, a director at Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation, a state agency that connects disabled workers to jobs.
"People with disabilities, as a group, have generally experienced barriers living in a world that is not designed for them," Krefft said. "They are innovators by nature. More companies are waking up to this."
Ernst & Young, the global consultancy firm, recently swapped out traditional job interviews for hands-on auditions for candidates with developmental disorders, said Hiren Shukla, EY's neurodiversity program leader.
"We don't want to get hung up on 'Did you make eye contact?' " he said.
Over the past two years, the firm has hired 14 people with autism as account-support associates. EY hopes to add six more this summer.
"We think we have hit upon an untapped workforce," Shukla said.
One is James Hudgins, 33, who works in the firm's Dallas office. He was selling car parts before a state workforce development agency put him in touch with EY last year.
The company trained him, and Hudgins quickly picked up coding. He soon found a way to automate progress reports.
"That's my pride and joy right there," he said.
Krefft said businesses have a financial stake in making accommodations.
She said more manufacturers are offering job shares, allowing workers to split one full-time role. (That can be ideal for workers with physical limitations who have trouble working eight-hour shifts, she said.)
Meanwhile, Janet Bruckshen, executive director of Washington Vocational Services near Seattle, said she has noticed more tablets in use that help deaf workers communicate.
Some employers, though, still hesitate to hire people who rely on screens.
"We still get comments like: 'We can't do it. Workers need to communicate with customers,' " Bruckshen said. "But all it takes is saying, 'Wait a sec. What if we figure out an accommodation?' "
Julie Propp, a 57-year-old Iowan with a severe intellectual disability, said she wanted a chance.
In her last job, she made $3.49 an hour as a janitor. She would often walk past a Kwik Star gas station ten blocks from her home in the rural community of Marshalltown.
Propp hoped she could work there. The people seemed friendly.
Her caseworker helped her get an interview.
As it turned out, Kwik Star sometimes spent months trying to find workers. Few passed its background check.
When Propp showed up with energy and a clean record, she was hired. And her boss Sheila Earney said she was more than happy to spend the extra time training her new employee.
Propp stocks the coffee bar with sugar, cream and cups. She sweeps the floor and the sidewalk. She cleans the windows and wipes down the coolers. She leads customers to ketchup, toothpaste and Band-Aids.
"I help people out if they need help with anything," she said. "I really like it."
Earney said Propp arrives early each day and has consistently earned stellar performance reviews.
"Anything we ask her," Earney said, "she does for us."
After nearly two years on the job, Propp got her first raise in April. She now makes well above Iowa's minimum wage at $11.25 an hour.
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