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December 10, 2018
Focus: HR & Recruitment

Able to work: Disability is not a handicap at some Maine employers

Photo / Jim Neuger
Photo / Jim Neuger
Scott David Bogdahn at his workstation in the Maine Woodworks workshop in Saco.
Photo / Jim Neuger
Tina Marie Stevens at the sanding station in the Maine Woodworks workshop in Saco.
Photo / Jim Neuger
Heidi Howard, executive director of Creative Work Systems, in the Maine Woodworks furniture showroom
Photo / Jim Neuger
Dave Gallati, director of operations of Maine Woodworks, in the company’s furniture workshop in Saco.

Past the showroom of cottage-style beds, tables and dressers in cheerful blues and greens is the 23,000-square-foot Maine Woodworks shop where the furniture is custom-built, painted and assembled in Saco.

"It's a good place to work," parts department assistant Scott David Bogdahn says as he drills a hole into a narrow strip of wood. After two decades on the payroll and the means to travel to places like Hawaii and Bermuda, he says his favorite part of the job is his co-workers. "You can make a lot of friends here."

Tina Marie Stevens, here on a day off to demonstrate her sanding skills, is more direct about what she likes best: "Getting paid!"

Though each has an intellectual disability, they're an integral part of the team at Maine Woodworks. The furniture manufacturer and wholesaler was founded in 1991 as part of Creative Work Systems, a Westbrook nonprofit whose mission is to support individuals with disabilities. Maine Woodworks does that by investing proceeds from its sales — which totaled $1.25 million last year — into the social mission. It also employs an integrated workforce of people with and without disabilities.

All earn a competitive wage of $11.25 to $20 an hour, and those who have a disability are appreciated for their strong work ethic and enthusiasm.

"You're not going to find more dedicated employees," says operations director Dave Gallati, whose office is decorated with Bogdahn's hand-drawn portraits of staff and a Valentine card full of signatures. "Oftentimes they're more reliable than folks who allegedly don't have disabilities, but everybody has limitations. We try to be inclusive and recognize that certain people have more limitations than others, so we'll challenge them and get them exposure to as much as we can."

As a private enterprise competing in the marketplace, Maine Woodworks has helped the nonprofit trim its reliance on state funding. That's no small task for a company with a workforce of fewer than 20 that only recently began using marketing to get its story out.

It's an important story to tell given the lack of job opportunities for adults with a disability, and the extra effort and training required of employers.

Underused talent pool

From 2012-16, fewer than a third of working-age Mainers with a disability were employed, compared to 80% employment for others, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

Over the same period, the unemployment rate among those with a disability was three times that that of others. National percentages were similar.

Part of the challenge to finding work may be the fact that adults with a disability tend to be older, with nearly half 65 or older in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It's not only physical handicaps that keep people from finding work but also intellectual disabilities — examples include autism and Down syndrome — which affect an estimated 6.5 million Americans.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notes that the majority of adults with an intellectual disability — which can encompass limitations on cognitive ability and everyday skills including communication — are either unemployed or underemployed despite their aptitude, desire and willingness to engage in meaningful work. That's not the case at Maine Woodworks and other employers in the state who have hired — and retained — adults with disabilities not just for altruistic purposes, but also because it makes good business sense.

They include Goodwill Industries of Northern New England, whose Job Connection program has placed workers with disabilities in sectors like technology, finance, retail, healthcare and construction, according to Heather Stott, executive director of Workforce Services at Goodwill.

"Work is about purpose, being a part of community, as well as earning a wage and gaining personal stability," she says.

Goodwill works with about 1,200 businesses in Maine, New Hampshire and northern Vermont, and has helped 300 people so far find stable careers, according to spokeswoman Heather Steeves.

"The low unemployment rate is making it difficult for businesses to hire, but we can be a resource," Steeves says. "Maine still has loads of great candidates, but people some hiring managers might overlook," including those with a disability.

For employers wary of taking the risk, Goodwill offers continued on-the-job coaching and help with transportation or daycare. Steeves' message to all employers: "If your business is struggling to hire, give us a call. We're going to ask you to keep an open mind, then we're going to help you hire," she says.

About a year and a half ago Goodwill helped a woman named Robyn get a part-time housekeeping job at the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown Portland Waterfront after she lost her longtime position at the Maine Mall. She cleans the lobby and other public areas three days a week

"She's doing a really great job for us," says operations manager Harold Shorette, noting that Robyn has never missed a day of work, received a performance-review raise, and was honored as the May employee of the month by unanimous vote of the management team. "She's one of the family."

'Reaching full potential'

Among larger corporations, Bank of America stands out for its 300-strong workforce of adults with intellectual disabilities, mainly in support services though some have gone on to more demanding jobs in other departments.

"Our goal is to help people realize their full potential each and every day," says Mark Feinour, the Delaware-based executive in charge of support services nationwide. Brian Bragg, who manages the team in Belfast, says that employees with disabilities are treated the same as everyone else and "rise to the occasion."

"I don't see any of my team as having a disability," he adds. "They learn a little differently so you have to tweak your style, but they are the best employees."

Back in Saco, Creative Work Systems Executive Director Heidi Howard has big plans for Maine Woodworks.

"We're very interested in hiring more people, finding more retailers and extending the geographic reach," she says. "We're really proud of Maine Woodworks and hope it can serve as an example … If you provide an equal opportunity and train people well, you'll end up with a great team."

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