For the past six years, Mark Roman has kept busy, scanning rolls of microfilm and various documents for a range of companies throughout the day at his job at eBizDocs in Albany.
It’s a job that has afforded the 31-year-old Schenectady resident financial independence in a judgement-free environment not always common in the workplace.
“It is very good,” Roman said. “I’ve been in situations where that’s not the case.”
Roman, who is on the autism spectrum, is one of 22 employees at the document management company who is classified as “disabled” by New York state, a population that makes up over 60% of the company’s direct workforce.
Workers like Roman are the heart and soul of the company, said Howard Gross, president and CEO of eBizDocs, who has made it a priority to create an inclusive environment.
Gross has a sign language interpreter on staff in order to communicate with workers that are deaf or hard of hearing and offers sign language lessons to employees. He also employs a full-time job coach, who helps disabled workers transition into their new role, address any concerns that might rise and ensure workers stay on task.
The investments have not only paid for themselves, but have created a stable, thriving workforce, said Gross, who rejects the term “disabled” and instead focuses on the abilities individuals can bring to the table.
“If you were to walk into our office, you would not have any idea who was classified as disabled and who was not classified as disabled,” he said. “It’s just a group of individuals who work together, a team who work together, to get the job done.”
The staff at eBizDocs represent just a small fraction of the thousands of disabled New Yorkers employed throughout the state that account for billions in economic benefits each year, according to a report released last year by the Rockefeller Institute commissioned by the group’s New York State Industries for the Disabled and New York Alliance for Inclusion & Innovation, nonprofits working to create a more inclusive work environment for disabled New Yorkers.
The report, which uses data collected in 2019, found the state’s 427 disability service providers supported nearly 200,000 jobs throughout New York, generating $14 billion in economic output, including $6.7 billion in provider revenue and $2.5 billion for suppliers. Around $5 billion was related to employee spending.
Advocates, however, say more needs to be done to eliminate systemic barriers keeping many disabled individuals from entering the workforce and they believe the current struggles employers are facing when it comes to filling positions presents a unique opportunity for those with disabilities.
But nonprofit disability service providers, organizations like the Schenectady ARC that play a key role in ensuring workplace access to disabled individuals, are facing their own struggles when it comes to employee retention, making it harder to provide basic services, let alone employment services.
A much needed boost in funding has been included for service providers in Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposed state budget, but advocates say long-term support and prioritization is needed to make up for years of neglect experienced under the previous administration.
“If the whole system is prioritized and individuals with disabilities are prioritized, then we’re going to lift everybody up,” said Maureen O’Brien, president and CEO of NYSID, one of the groups behind the study.
NYSID administers around 1,200 contracts for a range of companies, including hospitals, local governments as well as mail distribution services, and partners with organizations like Schenectady ARC to fill the positions. The nonprofits cover the costs of job coaches, a key role that the needs of the employee and employer are being met.
But while O’Brien pointed to the positive impacts employing those with disabilities has had, she noted more needs to be done by private businesses to create an inclusive work environment.
She noted while many businesses have stressed the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in recent years, those with disabilities have often been left out of the conversation, which she attributed to false perceptions about disabled individuals.
“Individuals with disabilities can do the job just as well, and sometimes even better, than someone who is not disabled,” O’Brien said.
Meanwhile, organizations like Schenectady ARC — which provides a range of services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including job services — have been struggling to fill vacancies of their own.
The high-demand job coupled with low wages has led to what Kirk Lewis calls “the great resignation.”
Lewis, the organization’s executive director, said the lack of workers has impacted all aspects of the ARC, forcing the organization to redirect its workforce in order to fill gaps and maintain services.
“We’re strained to the max,” he said.
The struggle also extends to job coaches and employment specialists, who were often working to find individuals jobs that paid a higher wage than what they were making, Lewis said.
Similar stories are common for those working in the industry, according to Michael Seereiter, president and CEO of the New York Alliance for Inclusion & Innovation, who has been tracking the impact of low wages in recent years.
It’s common for those working in the industry to be making minimum wage, despite needing a wide set of skills to perform the work.
“This is skilled work,” Seereiter said.
He added the industry, which relies heavily on state aid, has been hampered by years of neglect from state government, despite laws that would ensure annual cost of living adjustments be included in the state budget.
The pandemic has only highlighted the underfunding and accelerated its decline.
Prior to the pandemic hitting, direct-care providers had an average vacancy rate of between 12% and 15%, according to Seereiter.
Today, the rate is 28%.
The new administration has provided a sense of hope, including $450 million in new funding in a proposed budget plan that will allow for cost of living adjustments and offer sign-on bonuses for nonprofits to attract workers, but if approved, the funds would only be the first step, Seereiter said.
“We need a long-term commitment,” he said.
Meanwhile, at Pine Ridge Industries, an integrated production facility employing 65 disabled individuals owned and operated by Schenectady ARC, business has been flourishing. The facility holds 16 contracts offering various services, from minor assembly to shipping and packaging.
The company has picked up six new e-commerce contracts since the pandemic began, as companies doing more business online have struggled to find employees themselves, according to Nathan Mandsager, chief operating officer for Pine Ridge.
But as the workload has increased, the lack of job coaches has made things difficult.
“That disrupts our operations when we have deadlines on orders that we have to get out,” Mandsager said. “A majority of my staff still relies on that support; it’s why they show up to work everyday. This is an environment and a culture that is supportive of them being successful in the workplace.”
Mandsager believes disabled individuals can help address many of the needs faced by employers today, but noted businesses must strive to create an inclusive atmosphere and work to ensure individuals will have long-term success.
“There is opportunity. I think a lot of people can step into jobs, but is there a pathway for them to get into those jobs with the right support so they can get hired, and once they are hired, to be successful long term,” he said.
Back at eBizDocs, Roman said he’s grateful to be at a place where he can excel and others like him.
“I’m on the spectrum and it seems like people have no problem tolerating my various quirks,” he said.
Gross meanwhile, said it’s long overdue for private sector businesses to begin creating more inclusive environments for all employees.
“I think the term ‘reasonable accommodations’ has terrified employers for years,” he said. “They think reasonable accommodation equals huge expenses. … You may have to get a larger monitor for someone who’s visually impaired. You may have to make sure your bathrooms are handicap accessible, but isn’t that a good thing for everybody?”
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.
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