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An untapped workforce


Improved vocational rehabilitation efforts enabling more workers as available labor pool shrinks

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

If you’ve ever been in the job market, you know how many factors can make or break an interview: Charisma, clothes, college, qualifications, grammar, your social network, eye contact – even your breath can affect how potential employers perceive you.

Now think about how hard it might be if you lacked the ability to speak.

Or walk.

Or stand up straight.

Or follow directions.

Or read without jumbling the words.

In Wisconsin, some 300,000 persons of working age have significant disabilities. Only about a third of them are working.

“We have a 65 to 70 percent unemployment rate among individuals with disabilities,” said Mike Greco, division administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

But that’s changing. Since Act 58 of the Wisconsin Legislature was passed in 2013, DVR has broken placement records, helped 3,000 additional people find employment, and eliminated the waiting list that had dogged the state agency for a decade, Greco said.

What is DVR?

The Division of Vocational Rehabilitation is a state office within the Department of Workforce Development charged with helping persons with disabilities land and keep jobs. The agency receives federal funding to work with employers, those with disabilities and educational institutions through training, networking and placement.

DVR works with those with attention-deficit disorder, alcohol or other drug addictions, autism, visual impairment, brain injuries, cognitive challenges, dyslexia, hearing impairments, learning disabilities, orthopedic problems and mental illness, according to Greco.

“The highest percentage of individuals we work with are persons with mental illness,” Greco said.

Learning disabilities, cognitive disorders and orthopedic problems constitute the next most common disabilities DVR encounters.

Its services include career guidance, assessment, counseling, job placement, vocational training, rehabilitation technology, help with attaining occupational licenses, resources, equipment, and even developing small business plans.

DVR’s roots date to World War I, with programs to retrain injured war veterans returning home. In 1920, Congress expanded the program to include others with disabilities, not just veterans.

The program has a matching-funds incentive wherein the state provides about 21 percent of its funds while the federal government provides nearly 79 percent. In Wisconsin, it means the state comes up with $17 million and the federal government provides $63 million for DVR. Every state has a similar program for those with disabilities, according to Greco.

Employment programs offered by DVR aren’t one-size-fits-all.

“Everyone has different obstacles and challenges,” Greco said. “A person with visual difficulties may require ZoomText on their computer so they can see images. Someone with a hearing impairment may need different services than someone with an orthopedic condition.”

Most accommodations required cost less than $500 to implement.

Wisconsin DVR’s 42 sites employ 195 vocational rehabilitation counselors who hold master’s degrees, and are licensed through the state with 3,000 hours of required clinical practice.

“They help people deal with the impact of disability in their lives,” Greco said. “A lot of times people will have an event or are injured, and they lose confidence …. It affects self-esteem.”

Disabilities don’t have to be congenital or disease-related, and they don’t even have to be permanent to cause someone to be out of work. Sometimes people get injured and the only thing preventing them from working is that their line of work exacerbates the injury.

“A person could have a training deficit,” Greco said. For example, a construction worker with a back injury whose job requires lifting 50 pounds isn’t able to go back to his construction job, so he needs to change gears.

“The individual may need training at a tech college,” Greco said. “We can provide the support they need to get training to do a job that doesn’t aggravate their condition and (is) within their functional capacities to perform.”

Waiting game

Federal law requires that DVR help those with the most significant disabilities first – thus, the waiting lists.

Those with functional limitations but who don’t need extensive services get referred to job center programs throughout the state.

For over a decade, it took up to five months just to get into an employment program through DVR, according to Greco, because it didn’t have enough counselors to assist those individuals demanding services.

“We realized we needed to go from a supply-driven model to a demand-driven model,” said Scott Schlicher, a business services consultant with DVR.

Wisconsin Legislative Act 58 of 2013 gave DWD enough funding to hire 20 business services consultants and add services resulting in the highest outcomes in 15 years.

“The whole part of our disability evaporates and the focus is on ability – what the talents are of the individual,” Schlicher said. “Then we become the talent-development pipeline to employers and businesses, meeting their employment needs within the state.”

Business services consultants serve as liaison between the business community, service organizations, professional organizations and schools in forming long-term relationships and looking at how DVR can serve its population as well as the needs of employers, Schlicher said.

“Traditionally, DVR provided services but had no partnership with employers,” Greco said. “We would provide all this training – and eventually the person is going to need a job – and that relationship with employers wasn’t there.”

Now DVR goes to businesses to determine what they need. It’s established partnerships with several major employers in the state, including several in northeast Wisconsin.

United Health Group in Green Bay was among the first on board. With Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay as an educational partner, DVR and United Health set up a customer-service training program for its call centers.

The following year, West Business Services in Appleton and trucking firm Schneider in Ashwaubenon hopped on the bandwagon.

“This opens a whole array of different jobs and career paths for the individuals involved in that training,” Schlicher said. “Our employer partners are committed in the sense of adding to curriculum, participating in the training and, at the end, recognizing the certification.”

“We’re not asking anything of the employers other than to tell them, ‘We have a qualified candidate for you.’ We don’t expect any special treatment,” Schlicher said. “Perhaps there’s a large work gap and perhaps there’s a good reason for that, and we can explain that to the employer, and once we know the culture of the jobs and the employer, we can interview potential candidates and refer qualified candidates to them.”

There can be a fear factor among employers considering hiring someone with a disability, Schlicher said: “Fear of liability and, ‘Am I going to have to do a lot of extra stuff?’ We help the businesses understand working with persons with disabilities.”

Playing Matchmaker

Clarity Care of Oshkosh and Green Bay helps people with disabilities brush up on their skills and find jobs.

“Clients are referred to us by DVR with a specific service in mind,” said Samantha Philo, employment consultant with Clarity Care. “Depending on the service, we’ll work with a client to make sure they’re employment-ready. We work with them in overcoming any barriers they might have, to make sure they understand basic workplace expectations.”

Job preparation can include help with interview skills, skill building, resumes, references and cover letters.

“We’ll talk about what employers are looking for in an employee,” Philo said. “We’ll make sure that they’re appropriate for the type of job they’re looking to go into and that they have realistic expectations of what they’ll be doing.”

Clarity Care works with people who have a range of issues, from stuttering to cognitive challenges.

Adam Hobbs, 26, of Oshkosh had a stroke at age 21. Before that, he worked in construction. He recently found a job through Clarity Care working at 4imprint in Oshkosh. It’s enabled him to move out of his parents’ house, regain some independence, and feel like a grownup again.

“Trying to find a job while disabled when all you know is construction is pretty difficult,” he said. “I tried to find employment but I can’t physically do any of the labor I used to do because my balance isn’t what it used to be and I have left-side weakness.”

Hobbs used to be very active, citing skateboarding and motorcycle riding as two loves. He didn’t relish sitting around collecting unemployment.

“Working through Clarity Care and DVR, they gave me the opportunity to find employment,” he said. “If it wasn’t for them, I’d probably still be sitting at my parents’ house.”

Dan Fishelson, co-owner with his wife, Jessica, of Bob & Bonnie’s Bakery in Fond du Lac, employs referrals from Clarity Care and couldn’t be happier. In fact, most of his 16 employees come from Clarity Care and have challenges ranging from autism and dyslexia to loss of limbs.

“When I have a need for an employee, I send (Clarity Care) the job description and pay scale, and they in turn find me someone,” Fishelson said.

Employees work a gamut of jobs – driving, icing donuts, fulfilling orders and cleaning.

If an employee falls into a rut – say they forget their training over time or get distracted – Clarity Care comes to the bakery to provide job coaching until the employee is back on track. Fishelson said he’s maintained the same staff since he bought the bakery 18 months ago and even added a few.

“These are permanent positions, not temporary,” Fishelson said.

Help with contract fulfillment

Back in the 1960s, the world had very little to offer people who weren’t the standard ambulatory specimens. So, in 1962, some parents of special-needs children in the Fox Valley started a company to employ them. Lakeside Packaging Plus was born.

It’s a private nonprofit governed by a volunteer board of nine with locations in Oshkosh and Neenah.

“Back in the early 1960s, there were no options available in the community,” said Lakeside Packaging CEO Margaret Winn.

Lakeside Packaging works with around 20 area companies that use the services of its 275-member crew. Lakeside has done recycling jobs, painting, pallet work, and sub-assembly, but its specialties are collating and hand packaging.

“In many ways, it can become an extension of a customer’s workspace – things they may not have room for, the staff to do or the employees to do,” Winn said.

For someone to become a Lakeside Packaging associate, they need to be at least 18, have a medically-recognized disability and a source of funding. Typically that funding comes from state programs such as Family Care and IRIS, or a managed-care organization. It helps fund the payroll of the 63 staff members who provide supervision, training, case management, coaching, personal care and quality control. Staff also provide adult day services such as recreation and leisure activities.

Associates get paid on a piecework basis sanctioned by Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which allows Lakeside Packaging and other community rehabilitation providers to establish a piece rate, paying individuals for their actual production, Winn said.

Each year Lakeside Packaging contacts area employers to survey what the business pays for similar work, then averages the hourly rates for like work. The average becomes the prevailing wage, which in 2015 was set at $8.60 per hour.

Recently, J. J. Keller & Associates Inc. of Neenah awarded Lakeside Packaging its Supplier of the Year recognition.

“To be selected as the J. J. Keller Supplier of the Year is saying a great deal about our ability to be responsive and to be flexible,” Winn said. “We can rapidly mobilize workers, and that’s something other companies struggle with.”

For J. J. Keller, Lakeside Packaging does kit assembly and disassembly, shrink wrapping and fulfillment services for different product groups within the company, according to Tim Little, vice president of manufacturing and supply chain at J. J. Keller, which works with more than 1,000 regular vendors.

“We have a standardized, vigorous process of how suppliers are nominated and brought forth,” for the annual recognition, Little said, including input from various departments within J. J. Keller. But make no mistake – Lakeside Packaging wasn’t chosen because it employs people with disabilities.

“We look at them as a supplier. The fact that they employ people with special needs is really great,” Little said. “We don’t work with them because of it. We work with them because of the quality and the service we get.”

That’s the goal, according to Winn.

“When you work with (Lakeside Packaging Plus), an employer’s not only getting a quality product, which is certainly a very high priority for us, but you’re also providing opportunities for other people to develop dignity and respect by being able to work on their project,” Winn said. “Self-esteem and work are synonymous in our society, so when people support LPP and other CRPs, they’re doing a tremendous service to the people we serve.”

Winn recounted a story from her college days at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where she majored in vocational rehabilitation. She and some fellow students assisted at a conference for people with disabilities. The people with disabilities they encountered referred to those without disabilities as TABs – temporarily able-bodied.

“That made quite an impression on me at the age of 19,” Winn said.

Lee Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.