A job for all: Employment collaboratives connect disabled workers with employers

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Jeanette White, 62, working at the the Blue Wall dining hall at UMass Amherst. The Western Massachusetts Employment Collaborative helped connect White with the employer. Caitlin Ashworth—


By CAITLIN ASHWORTH  @kate_ashworth

Sunday, May 21, 2017

AMHERST — Jeannette White whizzed through the Blue Wall dining hall at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, picking up empty cups and used napkins and wiping down the tables.

“I finally found a job that I like to do,” she said. “It keeps me busy…I love coming here,” White said.

But the finding a good job can be different for White. The 62-year-old has clinical depression.

She said a few years ago, times were tough with her mental illness. Other jobs didn’t work out well for her, she said. Most of her past jobs have been cleaning and housekeeping work at hotels and other facilities. She said she was fired from one hotel for not being fast enough.

But at the Blue Wall, she has no problem.

White’s supervisor, Tunde Gyorgy, said White is quick and a hard worker.

“She’s one of the best people here,” said Gyorgy, joking about finding a way to clone White.

White’s journey to her fulfilling job is the perfect example of the success of a so-called “employment collaborative.” Funded by the state government, these collaboratives serve as a bridge between the organizations that represent disabled workers and the companies throughout the region where they are placed in appropriate jobs.

About a year ago, White became a member of the Star Light Clubhouse in Florence, a program that offers services to adults with mental illness.

Elizabeth Kelly, a senior employment coordinator at Star Light, said the organization helped White find her direction and build up her confidence and self-esteem.

This new-found confidence prepared White for the job hunt. In stepped the Western Mass Employment Collaborative, a service that connects employers with disabled job candidates working with 24 agencies like Star Light and the Mass Commission for the Blind.

WMEC has a two main goals: to expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and to create a single point of contact for employers in Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties who want to hire, said employer liaison Jody Spitz.

The range of disabilities include mental illnesses, developmental disabilities and physical impairments. But Spitz said there is a large variety and everyone has different skills and abilities.

Since its inception two years ago, Spitz has created relationships with employers and hosts regular meetings with job developers.

Spitz said so far the collaborative has assisted with job placement for about 100 people.

Along with UMass Amherst, the service works with the Big Y supermarket chain, Enterprise Holdings, FedEx, TJX companies and Granite City Electrical Supply Co. The collaborative assists companies with staffing, diversity hiring, tax incentives and workforce development initiatives.

While WMEC represents three Western Massachusetts counties, there are similar organizations across the state as part of a larger initiative created by Riverside Community Care, a social service agency in Dedham. The collaboratives are funded by the state Department of Developmental Services and the Department of Mental Health.

Fear about hiring disabled

Spitz said people can be fearful and sometimes uneducated about hiring people with disabilities.

“The issue carries stigma and the job developers still hear comments about ‘those people’ and ‘they can’t do this kind of work’ and ‘my staff wouldn’t know how to deal with people like that,’” Spitz said in an email.

She said she’s considering an educational awareness campaign and possibly a public awareness campaign where local businesses can place a sticker in their front window to signify they are on-board with hiring people with disabilities.

She said across the disability spectrum, there are a variety of qualified job candidates. And it’s a large, untapped labor pool, she said.

Some have bachelor’s and master’s degrees, while others seek entry-level positions.

Kelly, of Star Light, said she communicates honestly with employers about barriers they may face with a potential job candidate hired from Star Light. But she also tries to educate them.

And when WMEC notifies her of a job opportunities, she looks into a person’s background, work history, age and skill set to find the best match from Star Light.

But Spitz said people like White are out there and eager to work — whether it be packaging at FedEx or cleaning cars for Enterprise.

“There are so many qualified people out there that can contribute so much to a work place,” Spitz said.

Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at moc.tenettezagnull@htrowhsac.


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