More threads by Daniel E.

Daniel E.
Erasing 'un' from 'unemployable'

Associated Press - August 02, 2007

ANDERSON, S.C. - Like many people with autism, Harrison Mullinax, a pale, redheaded 18-year-old with a serious expression, speaks in a monotonous, halting voice and sometimes struggles to concentrate on tasks. Unlike most who are autistic, he now has a real job.

Mr. Mullinax works eight hours a day at a new Walgreen Co. distribution center, where he wields a bar-code scanner, checking in boxes of merchandise bound for the company's drugstores. From his paycheck, he tithes to his church and sometimes treats his mother to dinner at Kenny's, a local buffet restaurant.

An innovative program at the distribution center is offering jobs to people with mental and physical disabilities of a nature that has frequently deemed them "unemployable," while saving Walgreen money through automation.

"It answered a prayer," says Mr. Mullinax's mother, Vikki, who gets him up for work at 5 each morning, before sending him off to the bus for work. "It's given us the hope that at some point Harrison can live with minimal assistance."

A number of large employers, such as McDonald's Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., recruit people with disabilities to be cashiers, maintenance workers or store greeters. At Home Depot Inc., developmentally disabled workers stock shelves, clean displays and help customers find items. Home Depot has been working with a nonprofit organization called Ken's Kids, which was formed a decade ago by a group of parents seeking employment opportunities for their young-adult children, and has placed more than 100 people in 54 stores. In addition, smaller businesses around the nation have made a goal of employing workers passed over by other companies.

Still, executives at Walgreen and the social-services agencies working with it believe the company's program has a larger number of disabled employees, doing more-sophisticated work, than is typically available to people with mental and physical challenges.

Mr. Mullinax, like many of Walgreen's employees with disabilities, learned his job in a large metal-clad shed 15 minutes down the road from the distribution center. There, trainees learn how to work in one of three departments: "case check-in," where workers initially receive merchandise; "de-trash," where they unpack the goods; and "picking," where they sort the products into tubs based on individual store orders.

The distribution center opened in January at a cost of $175 million. It currently employs 264 people, more than 40 percent of whom have various disabilities, and it is 20 percent more efficient than the company's older facilities. On some days, disabled employees are its most productive workers.

"One thing we found is they can all do the job," says Randy Lewis, a senior vice president of distribution and logistics at Walgreen, which is based in Deerfield, Ill. "What surprised us is the environment that it's created. It's a building where everybody helps each other out."

When they make the transition to the distribution center, disabled employees at first have a job coach. Those needing it learn social skills, from the importance of wearing deodorant to finding appropriate conversation topics.

The idea began four years ago, when Mr. Lewis was evaluating new technology that could make Walgreen's next round of distribution centers far more automated than in the past. Mr. Lewis asked: Could Walgreen make the work simple enough to employ people with cognitive disabilities?

For him, the question was personal. His 19-year-old son, Austin, has autism. "I'm keenly aware of the lack of opportunities for kids like that," he says. Among people with the disability, the unemployment rate can be as high as 95 percent, according to social-service agencies.

Because employing disabled people wasn't expected to affect the distribution center's costs or efficiency, it wasn't difficult for Mr. Lewis to persuade the Walgreen board and David Bernauer, then the company's chief executive and now its chairman, to try the project. "The fact that we can use disabled people for this was a great plus," Mr. Bernauer says. "It didn't move the needle on the business decision."

As part of the program, Walgreen converted its computer displays from lines of type to touch screens with a few icons. It persuaded vendors to include more information in bar codes on merchandise, so that employees wouldn't have to enter so much data themselves. It redesigned work stations so that people don't have to stretch as far, and it added help buttons to summon assistance. Instead of posting printed cards to remind workers about having their bags inspected, Walgreen shows a video of someone opening a bag.

Angela Campbell, the facility's career-outreach coordinator, suggested adding pictures to numbered work stations. In the "de-trash" area, where workers remove merchandise from boxes and prepare it to be sorted for individual stores, there are images of farm animals.

Ms. Campbell, who has cerebral palsy and carefully maneuvers the building's many flights of stairs, tells employees they should feel comfortable asking her awkward questions about why someone looks or behaves a certain way. "I know what it's like to fight your whole life to have an employer look past your disability," she says.

All workers are constantly monitored to track whether they're meeting productivity goals. One day, workers with disabilities topped the productivity list in three major departments, says Keith Scarbrough, the distribution center's manager.

Many trainees volunteer their time to learn, sometimes spending as much as a year without pay. Anderson County arranges transportation for many employees to get to work. Walgreen estimates that if it reaches its goal of employing 200 workers with disabilities, the value of the government benefits it receives will be about $3.5 million.

Starting pay at the distribution center is $10.85 an hour, climbing to $13.80 an hour after two years.

The disabilities of workers at the center run the gamut and present the supervisory staff with a variety of challenges. Desiree Neff, 43, struggles with her balance and uses a walker, her 26-year-old son and co-worker, Troy Mayben, is legally blind. Recently, Ms. Neff wanted to learn how to operate a forklift so she could expand her skills, but she didn't have a place to put her walker. An engineer devised a clamp that attaches the walker to the forklift.

In another case, managers didn't know what to do about a disruptive employee who screamed "Hello!" every morning. Some argued that the behavior was part of the worker's disability. But Deb Russell, the career-outreach manager for Walgreen, reasoned, "We don't allow anyone else to do that." She instructed workers to ignore his shouting. Within two days, she says, he stopped.

As for Vikki Mullinax, she says now that Harrison is working, she can spend more time with her her husband and 16-year-old daughter. Harrison "has improved tremendously," she says.

Harrison Mullinax says he has made friends, and he likes being paid. Working at Walgreen, he says, has taught him how to offer help to others and "not to cuss anybody out."


Harrison Mullinax says he has made friends, and he likes being paid. Working at Walgreen, he says, has taught him how to offer help to others and "not to cuss anybody out."
:D Cute!! ...we all have to learn that at one point or another...! :D
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