Businesses are increasingly hiring people with disabilities and it’s helping the bottom line

Arnetha Vance, 46, who has cerebral palsy, works at Hidden Manna Cafe in Matteson on July 19, 2018. Owner Glynis Harvey and her husband, Mark Cagley, both former CTA employees, opened the restaurant after they retired; their employees include some people with disabilities. Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune

By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz and Hailey Mensik, Chicago Tribune July 26, 2018

When Glynis Harvey and Mark Cagley opened Hidden Manna Cafe four years ago, the couple did not set out to hire people with disabilities.

But then a social service agency asked: Might the Matteson restaurant employ a woman with cerebral palsy? How about a man with mild blindness? A customer asked for an application for her sister, who has an intellectual disability.

Harvey and Cagley were good people to ask. They have twin sons, now 28, with autism, and so they understood how difficult it is for people with disabilities to find jobs. They also knew how hard they worked once given the chance.

“As long as you are willing to work,” Harvey said, “we are willing to work with you.”

Falling unemployment rates among people with disabilities suggest more employers are adopting a similar mindset. The tight labor market is pushing companies to open their eyes to this untapped pool of workers, who employers say are loyal, enthusiastic, and able to do the job as well as anyone — sometimes even better.

The unemployment rate among people with disabilities dropped to an annual average of 9.2 percent in 2017, the lowest it has been since the government started tracking it a decade ago and down from a high of 15 percent in 2011, when the nation was grappling with the fallout from the Great Recession, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Dan Strick, president and CEO of the social services agency New Star in the south suburbs, has seen an uptick in employers hiring people with intellectual and developmental disabilities over the past 18 months, which he attributes in part to the tight job market.

“Employers who we have tried to reach out to in the past who didn’t seem to have much interest, now that they are hurting, they are having a more open mind,” Strick said.

To be sure, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities remains double the rate for people without, and two-thirds of working-age disabled adults are not in the labor force at all, meaning they’re not working and not looking. Transportation hurdles are a persistent challenge, as are misconceptions about what people with disabilities are capable of doing. But as more companies that hire workers with disabilities report great rewards, the practice is spreading.

Not just a feel-good step
Some of the progress is coming from large companies that are turning to people with disabilities to fill a range of jobs.

The professional services firm EY in January plans to open a NeuroDiversity Center of Excellence in its Chicago office, where it will hire 10 to 15 people to work in internal analytics, automation and cybersecurity. EY currently has 25 employees working in similar centers in Philadelphia and Dallas, most of them on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.

“There is a tremendous and viable population out there,” said Hiren Shukla, leader of the program. Retention since launching three years ago has been 100 percent. EY’s autistic employees, some of whom have advanced degrees, tend to be hyperfocused and learn twice as fast as a typical worker, Shukla said. But many were previously un- or underemployed because they avoid eye contact or have other communication or social quirks, he said.

Few accommodations have been necessary, though the work environment is kept consistent and mindful of employees who are sensitive to light, sound or temperature, Shukla said. The jobs pay $40,000 to $60,000 per year.

Arnetha Vance waits with co-workers by the window for a Pace bus to take her home after a shift at Hidden Manna Cafe in Matteson on July 19, 2018. Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune

Adapting to the idiosyncrasies of people with autism has been good for EY’s broader employee population, Shukla said. The visual learning aids developed for center employees have proved useful for all employees. Managers also have become more conscious of how they communicate, because people with autism tend to be very literal.

“It has trained us to be much more specific and clear when we talk to any audience,” Shukla said. “At the end of the day, doesn’t everyone want clarity in the workplace?”

Deerfield-based Walgreens runs a program for people with disabilities in all its distribution centers, where job candidates learn warehouse procedures and are then considered for jobs.

“It started out as something that was kind of socially responsible, but really turned into a high-productivity initiative, because these folks stay longer, don’t miss work, and retention of these employees is higher than folks without disabilities,” said Carlos Cubia, Walgreens chief diversity officer. “It’s really helped the bottom line in a number of ways.”

Arnetha Vance waits by the window for a Pace bus to take her home after her shift at Hidden Mana Cafe in Matteson on July 19, 2018. Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune

The challenges
Still, finding employment for people with disabilities isn’t easy.

Mark McHugh, president and CEO of Envision Unlimited, a Chicago nonprofit that serves people with disabilities, said his offers to provide employers with candidates are still met with a polite answer that human resources will look into it, and then silence. Employers are often fearful of the liability, worried that people with disabilities may be more prone to injury, McHugh said.

“The No. 1 piece of feedback we get in our client surveys is that they want to work, and it’s not there,” McHugh said. Transportation is also a challenge , as many clients don’t drive and many jobs aren’t accessible by public transit.

People with cognitive disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome, who comprise a third of the 1.4 million individuals in Illinois with disabilities, historically have had the toughest challenges, although they are seeing employment gains. Illinois had an 11 percent increase in employed people with cognitive disabilities between 2011 and 2016, the most recent period for which state data are available.

Many of those with disabilities work in part-time jobs. Still others work in workshops that employ only people with disabilities. Federal labor law allows employers to get permission from the Labor Department to pay workers with disabilities less than minimum wage, a system opposed by advocates who call it unfair and antiquated.

“As the country continues to debate over raising the minimum wage, we still have people with disabilities doing the work for pennies an hour,” said Sara Hart Weir, president and CEO of the National Down Syndrome Society. About 11,000 Illinoisans with disabilities are cleared to earn subminimum wage. The median annual earnings of a person with disabilities in Illinois is $22,089, compared to $35,506 for people without disabilities, according to 2016 American Community Survey data.

The Down syndrome group is working to move a bill through Congress that would end subminimum wage. In Illinois, a House bill to phase it out failed in committee in April, and a similar Senate bill is now in the committee process.

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