The Journal Gazette
Sunday, October 17, 2021 1:00 am

Advocate sees untapped workers

Programs help people with disabilities gain job skills

LISA GREEN | The Journal Gazette

Lisa Mungovan helped create a pamphlet three years ago that employers who have “help wanted” and “we're hiring” signs on display might be interested in.

In October 2018, Mungovan was on the board of directors for the Northeast Indiana Human Resources Association.

The pamphlet – with contact information for a dozen agencies and organizations – is a “List of Resources to Assist With Sourcing People with Intellectual and Physical disAbilities.”

The capital A is intentional because it's the last part of the word that Mungovan wants employers to focus on – abilities.

“Most of the people with disabilities, whether physical or intellectual, are thrilled to have a job,” said Mungovan, who is still a member of the Human Resources Association and owns Mungovan HR Consulting LLC.

Unemployment in the Fort Wayne metro area that includes Allen, Wells and Whitley counties was 4.9% in August, based on a Sept. 20 report from state workforce officials. That was down from 7.1% in August 2020, but many employers still can't fill jobs.

Some businesses have reduced hours, citing inadequate staffing. Several factors have contributed to the so-called worker shortage. Some workers opted to retire sooner than initially planned due to the coronavirus pandemic while others have made do with unemployment insurance benefits, especially if they have child care concerns for young children not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.

Mungovan believes some businesses may be missing out on potential talent when using automated systems that pre-qualify individuals, based on searching for selected key words in online applications. And with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, some employment specialists have reduced in-person recruiting and interviewing to preserve social distancing. In-person interviews can sometimes be key to convincing employers a candidate with disabilities can do a job.

Mungovan has a 23-year-old daughter with a disability who works part time at Walgreens because she got involved with a Pre-Employment Transition Services program that Easterseals Arc of Northeast Indiana had at Homestead High School when she attended.

Easterseals is hoping to draw attention to a broader talent pool with October designated as National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This year's theme is “America's Recovery: Powered by Inclusion.” 

The Pre-Employment Transition Services program allowed Jenna Mungovan, who has an intellectual disability called partial dysgenesis, varied work experiences while still a teen. She worked at a Goodwill retail store for a semester, worked at Lutheran Hospital's warehouse and helped with cleaning tasks and eventually at Walgreens.

Jenna, who graduated in 2018 from Homestead with a Certificate of Completion, works a few hours each week, stocking shelves and coolers, Lisa Mungovan said. And while Jenna may sometimes seem reserved and not visibly show excitement, her mom said she is “very focused on that job.”

Mungovan said she doesn't know of any companies that have hired someone with disabilities just for the sake of doing so. Instead, they've been open to potential and what individuals can contribute.

Easterseals Arc has several programs to help support and place people with disabilities. They include Pre-Employment Transition Services, which helps students improve skills as they explore employment and post-secondary education opportunities.

“If somebody says this is my interest, we are going to explore that,” said Allison Turner, assistant director of Employment and Transition Services. 

An Employment Readiness Academy allows businesses to have four Easterseals Arc clients come on-site and perform various job tasks while a supervisor from the organization helps monitor the work. The eight-week rotations are at no cost to the business. The clients do not get paid but gain the hands-on experience, exposure to potential career paths and learn employability skills.

The Enclaves program sends at least four and up to 10 Easterseals Arc clients to an employer where they are integrated into the work environment. The employer contracts with Easterseals Arc and provides the money for the nonprofit to pay the clients at least minimum wage. The Enclaves program can help employers have more stable staffing to help cover sick leave and other workplace realities.

Easterseals Arc has clients working in areas including manufacturing, hospitality, retail and health care. Specific jobs can include material handling, running machines, helping prepare meals and distribute them, light cleaning and assisting maintenance crews, Turner said.

Turner said the focus is on customizing the approach, based on individual business needs. 

“We don't want every business to think we're going to go in there as a group,” she said.

John Martin, program coordinator for Goodwill Industries of Northeast, is a certified instructor for the Windmills Program, which provides disability employment consulting.

Some employers worry that if they hire someone with disabilities who does not work out that they would feel guilty about ending their employment, Martin said. He also tries to steer the focus to abilities, rather than any limitations. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn't require employers to change job requirements, Martin said, but to make reasonable accommodations. And the adjustments – when needed – could be relatively simple. That might include flexible schedules, allowing more frequent breaks but the same overall allotted time or allowing noise-canceling earbuds if loud noises could be alarming to a person, he said.

Covington Box & Packaging Inc. in Waterloo had been connected with RISE Inc. in Angola, before it merged into Easterseals Arc and has found employees for years that way. 

“I think I speak for most employers like myself, with this labor shortage, there's no doubt it's hurt us in terms of meeting customer demands,” Covington Box President Tony Fifer said. “Unfortunately today the pool of prospects out there to hire is, No. 1, a lot less than it used to be, and the commitment to work, the desire to work is very small to what it used to be.”

Near the end of September, Covington Box had 65 to 70 employees. Fifer said employment used to be 85 to 90.

Fifer thinks many employers would be “pleasantly surprised” at how people with disabilities can contribute.

Opportunity was all Kenny Rowley needed. The 41-year-old has a disability but has been at Covington Box for 19 years. He works part time.

“I do everything here. Wherever they need me at, they put me at,” Rowley said, by phone. “I've got friends here, and I have Tony here. He's a good person to talk to.”

Rowley said he rides to work daily with a co-worker, starting his box assembling job at 5 a.m. 

“This is a good company. If we have issues, we talk to that person,” Rowley said, citing the first names of multiple colleagues he feels comfortable with.

Fifer said Rowley has grown during his tenure with Covington Box.

“Over time he's become more comfortable,” Fifer said. “He's been more open and his skill level has actually grown to the point where he's now a team leader on some of our assembly.”

Learning more

• The “List of Resources to Assist With Sourcing People with Intellectual and Physical disAbilities” is available by emailing or calling Lisa Mungovan at 414-8446. Mungovan said she updates contact information as needed for the organizations included in the pamphlet.

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