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Employers competing to fill jobs find value in workers with disabilities

Debbie Lane 4.jpg
Max Schulte
Debbie Lane, a food service employee at West Irondequoit Central School District, welcomes students to lunch in Dake Junior High School's cafeteria.

It's lunchtime at Dake Junior High School in West Irondequoit. Students are moving through the cafeteria line, trays in hand, as 55-year-old Debbie Lane takes their orders for pizza, tater tots and fried chicken.

"First we prep the food, cook the food, and then I usually serve the students then do the cleanup afterwards," Lane said, describing her job.

She has worked for the school district for six years.

"This is the best job I've had," she said, "because they seem to understand."

That understanding that Lane finds from her supervisors was missing from her previous job as a house cleaner, which she lost because she wasn't working fast enough, she says.

"I'm a slow learner," she explained. "I have some anxiety. I have a back issue and I can't do heavy lifting."

According to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment rate for people with disabilities was about 19% in 2021, compared to 64% for those without disabilities.

As employers across all sectors continue compete for a shrinking pool of potential workers, some are realizing people with disabilities shouldn't be overlooked. Like many managers, Betsy LoGiudice, the school lunch director for the West Irondequoit school district, has had a hard time hiring and retaining employees, especially since COVID-19 infections began spreading in Monroe County in March 2020.

"Many of my older employees chose to leave and not come back because they were scared," LoGiudice says. "They were afraid they would get sick."

LoGiudice said she has lost about a third of her staff since that time.

"At this point still, if we have a job posting out, I end up getting only a couple of people, and it is still very difficult to find help," she said.

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Max Schulte
Debbie Lane, a food service employee at West Irondequoit Central School District, takes students' lunch orders at Dake Junior High School.

So whenever the local nonprofit, Starbridge, asks if someone can come in for an interview, she's willing to talk to them. Starbridge links individuals who have disabilities with employers who have jobs to fill. That's how Lane landed her lunchroom job.

The agency helps job applicants identify their skills, create resumes, and practice social interactions.

"They want to work at a job where they're feeling the most success," said Ursula Nicholson, director of employment services at Starbridge. "Especially if, in the past, they weren't able to do that, they're coming with that new energy, that new passion of 'Finally, someone sees me and I want to be here.'"

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photo provided
Ursula Nicholson, director of employment services, Starbridge

Nicholson said some employers grossly underestimate people with disabilities, but the tightening of the labor market is starting to change that mindset.

Starbridge has placed people in jobs at grocery stores, retail outlets, libraries, landscaping, construction, and other businesses.

"We really try to match individuals to the skill set that the employer's looking for," Nicholson said.

Individuals with disabilities are also finding work with organizations providing services to people like them. Christina Eisenberg, Starbridge's director of employment equity, said this is important because representation matters; people with disabilities are more likely to use services from an organization that employs people they can identify with.

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photo provided
Christina Eisenberg, director of employment equity at Starbridge

Eisenberg has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. She used to work in early education. Throughout her career, she said "attitudinal barriers" were her biggest challenge — specifically, employers who buy into certain stereotypes about workers with disabilities.

"Things like accommodations being very expensive or that individuals with disabilities would be historically taking off more often for health-related reasons," she said.

But LoGiudice said she has found the opposite to be true.

She said her employees with disabilities have better attendance records than their coworkers without disabilities.

"I don't think they think about, you know, 'Oh, I'm going to call in sick because I need to go to the mall or something and I honestly think other people do," she said.

As for special accommodations, a 2020 survey of 1,029 employers who submitted cost information to the U.S. Department of Labor's office of disability employment policy found that the median one-time cost to accommodate an employee with disabilities was $500. Four percent of employers said they had ongoing costs, and 56% said their worker accommodations came with no expenses at all.

Some employers may fear legal liability when hiring a person with disabilities. But Eisenberg, who oversees a local employment equity coalition, said they work to challenge this misconception.

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Max Schulte
Debbie Lane, a food service employee at West Irondequoit Central School District, prepares for students to receive their lunches at Dake Junior High School.

"It's not about playing the 'I got you' game," she said. "It's about building a partnership and making sure that we provide them with the resources that are necessary and being able to help their business."

According to Eisenberg, employers who are willing to cross that bridge may realize that workers with disabilities have unique assets. Because they have to adapt to a world that doesn’t always accommodate them, coming up with creative solutions to problems is something they do often.

"That is a very, very valuable skill in a business," she added.

Lane's direct supervisor, Lourdes Santana, praises her work in the Dake Junior High cafeteria, calling her a team worker with a sunny disposition.

"At the beginning, it took a little while for her to learn, but she never gave up," Santana said. "She keep on trying and right now, I don't even have to worry about her. She comes and gets her job done and everything she does is very good. Very good."

Lane credits her parents for instilling a strong work ethic. When asked what people can learn from her story, she said she hopes they learn acceptance of people with disabilities.

"We are people; we have feelings," she said. "We're human beings and we should not be, like, pushed aside."

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.