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Firms Feted for Hiring the Disabled

The Monterey County Herald, October 23, 2008

County employment officials have long known that the potential of a single human being far outweighs mere physical ability, one of the reasons local firms that hire people with disabilities are being honored with an awards luncheon today.

"They're outstanding employees. They hardly ever call in sick," Eli Garnica, second assistant manager at the Prunedale Safeway, said about his employees with disabilities. "I wish some of our other employees had the same work ethic."

The Monterey County Committee for the Employment of People with Disabilities, in partnership with the Monterey County Workforce Development Board, is hosting an Employers' Award luncheon today from noon to 2 p.m. at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Seaside, to recognize local firms that have hired the disabled.

The ceremony also calls attention to the fact that October is Disability Awareness Month.

Joseph Werner, executive director for the Workforce Development Board, said people with disabilities represent a largely untapped source of job talent in Monterey County.

"It's rare nationally that people with disabilities get placed with jobs in the workplace," he said. "It doesn't need to be that way. There are major advantages to hiring the disabled. The retention rate among people with disabilities in a job is higher than regular workers who do not have a disability. They're very loyal to their employers."

Werner said that nationwide, about 70 percent of people with disabilities who believe they can work are unemployed, despite the available funding for training and placement in a job.

"Some businesses in general may believe wrongly that they can't afford to hire the disabled, but it's not difficult at all," he said.

In most cases, employers can get free job coaching, training and placement services in their work place.

In the past, the Committee for the Employment of the Disabled and the One-Stop Career Center in Salinas held separate awards ceremonies to honor firms that hire the disabled. but they merged this year in a collaborative effort, to provide greater services.

"This is the first annual combined event," Werner explained.

In addition to the Prunedale Safeway, firms being honored for hiring the disabled include Wal-Mart of Marina, two Safeway stores in Carmel, the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority, Kmart in Salinas, Kohl's in Marina, the Monterey County Office of Education, and the U.S. Army Defense Language Institute.

Carolyn Hinds, program director for Interim Inc./ Supported Education & Employment Program Services, said the organization works with about 100 disabled clients a year.

"It's a case-managed system, and we get information about people on referrals," she explained. "We do an assessment for each person. We look at the skills they have, and the skills they need, and we help them select a vocational goal. We look at what they've done in the past, or what they would like to do. Many times, the disabled have skills they aren't even aware of."

Hinds said the program is a shared effort between the Monterey County Behavioral Health Adult Services Program and the California State Department of Rehabilitation. She noted that the ultimate objective is greater freedom for the clients.

"Getting a job for a person with a disability represents independence, and a sense of self worth," she said. "All our clients deserve an opportunity."

Alvin Payne said his 39-year-old son James, who has Down syndrome, has worked at the Carmel Mid-Valley Safeway for 10 years. Payne lives with his son and wife, a retired school teacher, in Carmel Valley.

"James was one of the first to be hired at Safeway," Payne said. "We're thrilled because he's getting a paycheck. He bags groceries and helps customers. When we go out, we often run into customers who have met and know James. He's very popular at the store, and he's become a dependable employee."

James was trained by a coach from Hope Services, a Monterey and Santa Cruz-based social services organization that works with developmentally disabled adults. In addition, the Central Coast Center for Independent Living also works with people with disabilities. Pam Smith, Hope manager of community employment services, is also a board member of the Monterey County Committee for the Employment of People with Disabilities. She said the organization trains people with a variety of disabilities, from autism, to cerebral palsy, epilepsy and mental retardation. But she added that the sense of personal commitment and dedication exhibited by the workers she has placed in jobs more than makes up for the inconvenience of a particular disability.

"For employers who are looking for a dedicated employee, hiring a disabled person is an excellent choice," she said.

Josephine Batnia, 46, lives with her mother in Monterey. She has an anemic condition that requires her to receive blood transfusions, but she entered the program, received the training, and now has a measure of independence that only a job and a paycheck can provide. A worker at the Carmel Safeway in the Crossroads Shopping Center, she said she bags groceries, helps out customers and organizes the shopping carts.

"I've been here since last November, and this is my first job," she said. "I came here because I wanted to make my own money, and at first it was hard, but the training was good, and I've gotten to feel at home here."

Brittni McCready, a coach who works with Batnia and others at the store, said she works with the clients on everything from interacting with customers, to the various job skills required by the position.

"At first you need to gain the person's trust, and that can take a while," she said. "At first they might think, who is this (coach)? But you let them know you'll be there to explain things for them, and that you're not going away. You're going to stick with them until they succeed."

Jose Gamboa, assistant general manager for the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority, said his firm has four employees with disabilities who work at a variety of tasks, including separating recyclables out from bins collected at supermarkets and other outlets.

"These can be pieces of plastic, glass, aluminum," he explained. "The people we've hired with disabilities have a tremendous amount of pride, and we're very impressed with them. They're helping to keep Monterey County green. Our goal is to increase our activities using their skills, because they're steady employees. We're developing a great working relationship."

In addition to the recognition given to local employers hiring the disabled, a $500 scholarship is to be presented to a disabled youth participant enrolled in the Monterey County Office for Employment training program, who is also a student at Hartnell College.

By JOHN SAMMON, Correspondent

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