Ready & Able: Initiatives for Hiring People With Disabilities
Employers say simple accommodations have helped them to tap undiscovered talent and create a more diverse and productive workplace.
Paul Mazzoli works on “inners” at the cavernous Walgreen Co. (WAG) distribution center in Windsor, Conn. As boxes slide down an assembly belt to his station, he slices them open and removes the shampoo, aspirin or any of the thousands of other products that may be inside, packaged in plastic wrap or smaller boxes. He then places the individual products in a bin and sends them off to another station, where they are prepared for shipment to one of the company’s 7,600 drugstores. Mazzoli consistently meets his position’s “rate” of processing at 93 products an hour, which makes him one of the distribution center’s superstars — regardless of his Asperger’s syndrome.
Mazzoli is not an exception at the center. Of its 457 employees, more than 40 percent identify themselves as having a disability. Before the Walgreens opportunity, many — such as Jamie Graham, a young woman with Down syndrome — had been deemed unemployable and hadn’t held a job before. Others had worked a series of temporary jobs. Thomas Pelletier, a 42-year-old with epilepsy, had been let go from a number of jobs after suffering seizures. He still has an average of one seizure a day, but, wearing a bike helmet and elbow pads as protection, he manages just fine working in receiving.
Mazzoli, 22, reports his own share of previous job disappointments. He gets nervous easily and couldn’t keep up with the pace of washing dishes at a local pizzeria (although he’s learned to work as quickly as anyone without disabilities at the distribution center). The local grocery store had hired him as a bagger but moved him to janitorial work after he spoke inappropriately to customers. “Sometimes I have outbursts, so I prefer not to work directly with the public,” Mazzoli says. But since he “didn’t want to be washing toilets my whole life” — and Walgreens offered a higher salary — he applied at the distribution center shortly after it opened in 2008.
Of the approximately 10,000 workers in Walgreens’ 19 distribution centers, about 8.5 percent report some form of disability, according to Deb Russell, the company’s manager of outreach and employee services, who notes that the logistics division aims to hire 2,000 people with disabilities in the next few years. In addition, Walgreens hopes that a pilot program that involves hiring people with disabilities in its stores, now under way in Texas, will go chainwide in 2012.
Walgreens is not alone in its efforts to hire people with disabilities. Each year Careers & the disABLED magazine names 50 Top Employers based on readers’ votes. The 2010 list includes The Boeing Co. (BA), Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ), IBM Corp. (IBM) and Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ). “Sometimes being a great employer is just a mindset — that people with disabilities are welcome and can do the work as well as anybody else,” says the magazine’s editor, James Schneider.
Of course, hiring people with disabilities is also the law. The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, put into action two decades ago, prohibits discrimination against employees with disabilities as long as they can do the work and requires U.S. employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” to help employees do their jobs. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, enforces these regulations.
Other countries have similar legal requirements. Spain, for example, fines companies with more than 50 employees that don’t fill at least 2 percent of their jobs with disabled individuals, says Greg Netland, an executive board member of Randstad Holding NV (Euronext: RAND), who also has responsibility for U.S., Canadian and Latin American operations at the global staffing solutions company, which has headquarters in the Netherlands. Since its start in 2004, he reports, the company’s Spanish-based nonprofit Randstad Foundation has advised and helped more than 6,000 people with disabilities, resulting in actual placement of almost 2,000.