In Cowlitz County, it takes the average disabled person 17 months to find a job once he or she leaves high school. “You have to get very creative,” said one advocate, “and you have to find those mom-and-pop shops that are willing to work with you a little bit.”
LONGVIEW — It is just before noon. Curtis Everman and Chelsea Klayum have half an hour to make their rounds to local businesses to find Everman a job.
Everman’s job folder listing his qualifications and employment experience slides around on the back seat as Klayum winds her way through the Kelso-Longview area.
Everman, 59, has developmental disabilities and gets help finding employment from Life Works, a Longview-based social-services organization that supports people with mental and physical disabilities. Klayum, a Life Works employee, has been Everman’s job coach for two months.
But Everman has been searching for a part-time job almost two years. He has applied to more than 40 employers. Klayum’s time to help him search is sharply limited by regulations. And he has been frustrated at every turn, The Daily News reported.
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“I like to work fast and work my skills, (but) it takes a while,” Everman said.
Like Everman, the vast majority of people with mental and physical disabilities face chronic unemployment or underemployment, despite special state assistance aimed at helping them find work.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17.5 percent of people with disabilities were employed in 2015, while 65 percent of the nondisabled population had jobs. Unemployment among disabled adults was double that of the nondisabled population.
Over the last five years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, disabled people have made up about 15 percent of Cowlitz County’s unemployed population.
It takes the average disabled person 17 months to find a job once he or she leaves high school in Cowlitz County, a period of time that includes applying for state-supported job-search assistance, according to Life Works.
Advocates for the disabled say the value of employing disabled people goes far beyond supplementing their bare-bones state disability income. It is good for them and the community.
“So many of the folks have been told when they were younger, ‘Oh, you’ll never read. You’ll never do this, you’ll never do that.’ They’re reading. They live in the community. They have jobs,” said Wendy Keegan, director of development at Life Works. “It’s that sense of pride that they get with a little bit of support, that they can achieve their goals when they want to achieve their goals.”
Life Works Executive Director Dave Hill adds that people with disabilities take the same satisfaction in a job well-done as does the rest of the workforce. “I don’t have any employees who are more proud to wear their work gear than the folks who have a disability. They are very proud.”
Roots of the problem
The reasons for the employment difficulties are many. Some are obvious, others not readily apparent.
The process to determine eligibility for state job assistance, for example, is lengthy and complex. And many employers are reluctant to hire a disabled person because jobs often have to be tailored around their disabilities.
And over the last decade, the federal government has discouraged “closed shops” that employ people only with developmental disabilities. The focus has been on integrating disabled people into the regular workplace. In smaller communities, such as Cowlitz County, this requires social-service organizations to make stronger ties with businesses to help disabled clients get jobs.
“I think we’ve found niches to get into and find employment, but (this community) is not as big as Portland or Seattle, where there’s a lot more opportunities. So you have to get very creative and you have to find those mom-and-pop shops that are willing to work with you a little bit. So that makes it a little bit harder,” said Angie Whitcraft, director of client services at Life Works.
Life Works itself runs three enterprises — Life Works Linen, ADC Janitorial and the Farm Dog Bakery. But it also employs other people so the enterprises are fully integrated into the community, Hill said. They employ 17 disabled people in total who work six to 20 hours a week at minimum wage.
At Linen Works, located in Longview, sheets of red, blue, gray, black and white are stacked neatly on a metal stand in the corner. A draft from the heater above ripples the gold fabric Cory Rogers is steaming. The smell of Pine Sol and other cleaning products envelops the small room.
For 15 hours a week, Rogers, 46, steams, folds and launders linens at Linen Works, which rents out linens throughout the community. Rogers has had his job for almost four years. He likes to listen to heavy metal while he works. Although he struggles with folding the fitted sheets, he is meticulous, lining up the edges just so. Laminated signs hang on the back wall, reminding Rogers of his duties. His boss and co-workers say he has never had a bad day.
“He’s succeeded here really well,” said Marie Caine, Linen Works manager.
Rogers works alongside those without disabilities as part of Linen Works’ inclusionary model. Rogers said his favorite part is folding the sheets, and “really likes” his job.
Rules hinder job hunt
Life Works has eight job coaches, such as Klayum, who seek work opportunities and provide on-the-job assistance for clients with disabilities. Depending on the client’s independence level, verbal and physical abilities, how much they work, and how much time is needed, job coaches will get a set amount of hours from the government to spend job hunting with their clients.
Klayum only gets to help Curtis Everman once a month, twice if they’re lucky. During these times, she likes to take him into the community to check on submitted job applications so employers can meet him and they can begin building relationships.
Governmental restrictions on how many hours a coach can spend on a client can be tight, and that leads to many job coaches working unpaid hours to find clients jobs.
“Seven hours a month is not enough time to find a job for someone with multiple barriers, so we do whatever it takes. We’re always over-serving,” said Debra Westerby, vocational coordinator at Life Works. “We want to get them jobs, that’s just what we do. Sometimes that takes extra time.”
Other challenges to employment are that many disabled people depend on public transportation, limiting the hours they can be available to work. In addition, employers often find it hard to justify crafting jobs, tailoring them for a specific person’s disabilities.
“It’s not easy sometimes for them (employers) to open that door. Sometimes they’re a little scared, a little apprehensive, they’re just unsure,” said Whitcraft, with Life Works.
The Wal-Mart Supercenter employs two or three people with disabilities at its Seventh Avenue store in Longview, which has nearly 250 employees.
Several years ago, the store created positions specifically for people with disabilities. For example, they involved greeting or placing inventory on shelves if that employee couldn’t do some of the other tasks associated with a job, such as heavy lifting or lots of walking, said Patti Carroll, personnel manager at the store.
Because of budget constraints, Wal-Mart no longer creates those special positions. The store has to make sure the employee can do all the tasks associated with the job, Carroll said.
“It is a rewarding feeling to be able to help out someone with a disability, and I enjoy it,” Caroll said.