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Entrepreneurs, Hire the Disabled

Rebecca Herwick, Founder, President and CEO, Global Products, Inc.

  • Dennis, Quality Controller, Receiving Department
  • Lenny, Accounting Department
  • Jay, Janitor, Maintenance Department
  • Doug, Novelty Puller, Warehouse Department
  • David, Warehouse clerk, Receiving Department

What makes all of these workers so special? All are disabled. All suffer from “closed” head injuries, in which brain injuries have occurred, usually as the result of an accident, the full impact of which cannot be detected even with medical imaging techniques. And all of these workers are currently, or have been, employed at my company, Global Products, Inc. in St. Peters, Missouri.

Job Carving

Each of these people represents our company’s commitment to a concept we call “job carving” and to a goal that other entrepreneurs would do well to embrace: hire the disabled.

The social reason is easy to understand. After Doug, a close friend of my family, suffered a traumatic brain injury in a devastating motorcycle accident on the unforgettable night of August 25, 2000, I underwent a 180-degree turn in my thinking about what it means to be an entrepreneur. That night, when I was told he might not live, I at once drew upon my entrepreneurial inclination, the thinking that I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I became bound and determined to bring him home.

I also reconsidered an attitude that I had held throughout an entrepreneurial career that spanned a decade and a half. (In 1983, I had co-founded a predecessor company, RKS Novelties, which sold items at weekend motorcycle races and was dissolved in 1999.) Throughout those years, I focused on capitalism. Once Doug was injured, I came to realize that entrepreneurs have a responsibility to society as well as their businesses.

The irony is that this new thinking has been a plus for my company’s business. Resolving to hire the disabled, I’ve embraced a plan that we call “job carving,” which means slicing segments from existing jobs that require less skill and bundling them into new jobs to be performed by individuals who have suffered brain injuries.

Business Benefits

The benefits are enormous and speak to an entrepreneur’s need to keep costs down, deploy scarce resources judiciously, and give back to the community. Let’s take a look at the cost. To bring on any one employee, I need to spend $9 an hour, plus benefits. Yet, accumulatively, not all of the hours in a day justify these costs.

That is because no matter how much one tries to improve productivity, there isn’t a smarter way to stuff envelopes, take out the trash, or shred paper, yet all are imperative daily tasks that keep my business functioning. Funneling these tasks to the disabled enables strategic job development. I can assert the higher-skilled staff to perform more complex functions, thereby increasing productivity. And because the disabled generally work part-time, the company does not allocate group benefits. In addition, Global Products, which I founded in 2000, qualifies for a tax credit for hiring such workers.

Over the past three and a half years, Global Products has helped 159 disabled workers, all from the Center for Head Injury Services, a St. Louis based advocacy group. The Center operates a day program that currently is helping 98 brain-injured people from two locations. In 2003, the Center served over 196 brain-injured people.

Gradual Learning

I discovered the Center nine months after Doug was injured, when I was looking for a day program for him. Having agreed to accept Doug, the Center became my entree into a world that I hadn’t known existed.

There I met Dennis, a wheelchair-bound patient who had been living in a nursing home for 16 years, ever since he, too, was injured in a motorcycle accident. It was Dennis who first asked me for a job. And it was that query that made me realize that disabled people need the stimulation and satisfaction that only work can bring.

I hired Dennis, then Jay, Doug, Lenny, and David. In all, we’ve hired five people from the Center as employees. For their first three months on the job, a liaison from the Center accompanies them every day, overseeing their progress and training.

In addition, more than 100 people from the Center have worked with us for three months to learn jobs and then be placed with other employers. Finally, we’ve used more than 60 for short-term projects, ranging from one day to several weeks. A group of 14, for example, recently stuffed bags that we would use as promotional items at a convention.

Because 99 percent of these individuals are learning how to re-enter the work force at no cost to them or their families, Global Products does not pay them for their work performed while in the program. Rather we contribute a donation to the Center for the benefit of its consumers.

Working It Out

Hiring the disabled hasn’t been without problems, although we have been able to solve most with common sense—and a sense of humor. In an attempt to entertain his co-workers, Dennis, for example, would drive too fast and tend to flip over his electronic wheelchair. While no one was hurt, we promptly put him into a chair with manual controls.

Lenny had trouble remembering where the restroom was. We repeatedly reviewed the steps necessary to get him there from his desk, until he was able to relearn what his brain had forgotten as a result of his injury.

Making It Work

Though we’ve learned how best to work with the disabled gradually and through trial and error, other entrepreneurs might benefit from the steps that we now realize were taking shape. These include the following:

  • Work with an advocacy group, such as the Center for Head Injury Services or the Brain Injury Association. Tell the representative that you are interested in finding disabled workers for job–carved positions, and let the organization take the lead in providing workers.
  • Equip your facilities for the handicapped. You probably do this already to comply with federal legislation. But sometimes a minor additional change will enable you to hire an otherwise excellent and deserving worker.
  • Ask your human resources department to fully explore the tax credits from the state and federal governments for which your company qualifies when hiring the disabled.
  • Fit the person to the job—and not the other way around. When you find a disabled person with potential, begin looking for job-carving opportunities.
  • Treat the disabled as you would anyone else, and you needn’t fear lawsuits. The concept of “reasonable accommodation” doesn’t mean having to tolerate inappropriate behavior or incompetence.

Immeasurable Benefits

The benefits to the disabled workers are priceless: socially, mentally, and developmentally. By providing these individuals with opportunities to grow and structure to learn, you help stimulate their lives and their recoveries. Once you resolve to take this route, you and your company can benefit and contribute to improving the quality of someone’s life by giving that person the opportunity to work as well.

Hiring the disabled brings entrepreneurs both intangible and tangible benefits. In my case, the most heartfelt has been that Doug is now able to live independently. Similarly, I’ve appreciated my newly discovered obligation to give back. My staff has become more accepting and patient with those with special needs. While my company has benefited from lower labor costs and improved productivity, it took a personal tragedy to open my eyes to this mutually beneficial relationship. I hope my insight and experiences will open yours.

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