Any time Bet-R Neighborhood Market owner Cliff Boulden has a job opening, he tries to hire a person with an intellectual or developmental disability—not as a sign of sympathy, but because he sees them as an untapped workforce that’s eager to stock shelves and read labels.
Boulden already knows many of them through his involvement with the Greater Baton Rouge Hope Academy, the alma mater of his 25-year-old daughter, Molly, who is developmentally delayed. After Molly aged out of the school a few years ago, Boulden hired her part-time as a way to keep her busy and focused. But since then, he’s also brought on at least a half-dozen of her friends with special needs, who now comprise roughly 15% of his payroll.
“If you can find the thing they do well, they’re just as good as anybody else,” Boulden says of the group of mostly 20-somethings, who start out earning minimum wage. “The only drawback is that I can’t hire all of them.”
Larger grocery stores like Albertsons and Winn-Dixie are among many nationwide that have integrated people with disabilities into their dwindling workforce. As a small business owner, Boulden says he sees a greater payoff because the close-knit environment allows him to teach workers how to perform tasks other than bagging groceries, maximizing operational efficiency. Next, he wants to teach them how to use the cash registers.
Boulden’s recruiting practice comes as the unemployment rate for people with disabilities continues to fall nationally, dropping to 8% in 2018—the lowest it’s been since the government started tracking the metric in 2007. However, the jobless rate for people with disabilities is still more than double the country’s 3.8% unemployment rate, and they still run into challenges when searching for work.
With an airtight labor market, local companies are beginning to examine this untapped pool of workers—who employers say are capable, focused and friendly—to fill both full- and part-time jobs with historically high turnover rates and vacancies.
“It’s not charity. It’s not, ‘We feel sorry for you, here’s a job,’” Boulden says. “We benefit because they’re producing.”
The bottom line
Companies across a variety of sectors are also hiring people with special needs to help with their bottom lines. For many, that means filling gaps in skills and manpower.
The trend is noticeably playing out in the Information Technology sector, where local firms are looking for workers who can perform highly repetitive jobs that typically have high turnover rates, like coding and data entry. Most people on the autism spectrum, however, flourish under routine, often bringing different—and welcomed—perspective to product development.
“We’ve found that sometimes the so-called ‘disabilities’ are strengths when it comes to creative tasks like software design or network problem-solving,” says Mohit Vij, president and CEO of General Informatics, which has some employees who are on the autism spectrum. “We have found them to be amazing individuals who are genuinely bright and very friendly people.”
The employees occupy a range of jobs at the IT services company, writing complex software code, troubleshooting end-user problems and regularly patching networks as well as thousands of devices with security fixes. They’re mostly full-time, salaried workers who are paid “based on the value they add,” Vij says, noting perceived disabilities don’t factor into salary determination.
Meanwhile, as the manufacturing sector eyes an aging workforce and looming skills gap, it’s also beginning to consider tapping into the unique workforce.
ExxonMobil spokeswoman Stephanie Cargile says the oil and gas giant has dozens of employees with disabilities working a variety of jobs in Baton Rouge, ranging from craft workers to engineers, and they’re looking to hire more.
“ExxonMobil is currently exploring NeuroDiversity and the many positive qualities associated with some presentations of autism,” Cargile says, noting the company headquarters recently hosted an industry meeting in Houston focused on the employment of individuals with disabilities.
For VICI Precision Sampling, it’s a strictly economical move. The company—which manufactures syringes, Mininert valves and probes—has maintained a partnership with The Arc Baton Rouge for decades, outsourcing a supervised, several-person crew that comes in two to three days a week to assemble and package Mininert valves.
Last year, VICI Precision Sampling increased the prices of some of their products in order to give the part-time workers a small pay raise—and the company is still saving money.
“It seemed fair to us,” says Administrative Manager Kaye Smith, noting each person on the crew is paid a rate based on the quantity and type of pieces they assemble. “It would cost us more if we had someone else do it full-time, and we haven’t ever considered hiring anyone else.”
Baton Rouge’s challenges
Despite available resources and growing interest among employers, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities still confront obstacles as job candidates in Baton Rouge.
Finding an employer who is receptive to an interview is often the hardest step, says social worker Maggie Giles, program director of Gateway Transition Center, a local nonprofit that places people with autism into jobs. However, Giles is starting to notice a shift in the employer mindset.
“I see from employers more of an openness and acceptance of people with disabilities,” Giles says, attributing uptick to increasingly positive media representation of the population. “But when some employers hear the word ‘autism’ or ‘disability,’ they’re worried about providing accommodations.”
Accommodations might include offering flexible hours, remote working opportunities or tailored interpersonal communications techniques, Giles says, acknowledging that business owners also worry about potential liabilities.
It’s one of the reasons people with cognitive disabilities like autism and Down syndrome face high unemployment rates. They comprise 6.2% of Louisiana’s population but only 2.8% of its workforce—a roughly 45% unemployment rate, according to estimates from the 2017 U.S. Census American Community Survey.
People with disabilities are also generally paid lower than those without disabilities. It isn’t clear whether—and if so, how many—of Louisiana’s part-time workers with disabilities earn a subminimum wage, as is the case in some other states. But the median annual earnings of a Louisianian with disabilities, according to the survey, is $22,203, compared to $31,104 for someone who doesn’t have a disability.
Susanne Romig, executive director of The Arc Baton Rouge, says people with disabilities also often have problems securing transportation. Her organization remedies the setback by bussing people to state government buildings, Woman’s Hospital and other places to complete temporary work, like janitorial and lawn care services.
“The businesses like it because we’re kind of like a temporary staffing agency,” she says. “We provide the labor, and they don’t have to worry about the HR or the background checks.”
While the community has slowly embraced the idea of outsourcing to The Arc (and even hiring some of its members) over time, Romig says, Baton Rouge still has a long way to go. Currently, she’s part of a larger group working on an initiative to place people with special needs into local jobs.
“It’s just a matter of outlining the simplicity of it and creating a starting point,” she says. “We’re trying to get a couple businesses to become champions, and others will follow.”