A NATIONAL DISABILITY EMPLOYMENT AWARENESS MONTH LIKE NO OTHER: EMPLOYMENT SERVICES DURING A PANDEMIC
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM)! Each October, NDEAM celebrates workers with disabilities and employers who are smashing stereotypes about the abilities and misconceptions of hiring and retaining people with disabilities.
Search Inc. and its Career Services program look forward to observing NDEAM every October, but this year’s month-long celebration has more meaning for us with the unprecedented challenges our career services participants and staff members have had to face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the pandemic hit, 174 individuals were participating in a variety of paid work, training and community-based competitive employment options through Search’s Career Services program. Pre-pandemic, Search was supporting 35 individuals working at local businesses.
Integrated, competitive employment is a big part of Search’s mission. At Search, we recognize that working in the community can be a transformative experience. Individuals form new social connections, professional skills and are able to more independently chart the course of their life.
One of our community employment participants, Lena, puts it this way, “I’ve worked at Marshalls since 2018. Having a job means independence. It means I can be around real friends that are not fake. I can help out other people and customers when they need help. It feels great. I am able to make my own purchases. It allows me to interact with people from the outside.”
However, everything changed in March 2020 when the Department of Human Services (DHS) mandated that organizations like Search shutdown their day and employment programs.
Like all of us, the lives of Search’s Career Services participants were drastically uprooted. Events and activities were canceled. Individuals with jobs in the community or at Search’s Planet Access Company Warehouse were out of work. Throughout it all, Search’s participants have faced the total disruption of their lives with incredible resilience, good humor and grace. Their ability to adapt to these challenging conditions has been a constant source of light in this difficult time.
Seven months later…
It is perhaps fitting that this October during NDEAM, Search can announce that its community employment services have resumed. In recognition of this important milestone, we sat down (virtually) with Sarah Meyerson, our Search Inc. Employment Specialist and QIDP, to provide an update on how the program is fairing in the “new normal” caused by the ongoing pandemic.
Q: When did community employment services start up again?
A: We resumed supporting individuals with jobs in the community in late June and have been meeting virtually and in some instances, in person, with individuals who are participating in job development services.
Q: What kinds of things did you go over with individuals in your virtual sessions?
A: We discussed the new expectations at jobs and being in public, like social distancing, wearing masks and good hygiene. We discussed the job market and managing expectations, especially since unemployment is high and will probably remain so until the pandemic is under control. Most importantly we continue to practice interview skills, especially over a platform like zoom, look at job listing sites, and fill out online applications.
Q: How many people (counting both development and supported placements) are in the community employment program since services resumed?
A: We have 28 people enrolled at this time. We have 19 people placed and working currently. One person holds down two jobs, her second job which is in a salon at an assisted living facility (is still not allowing non-essential staff for safety reasons) but otherwise everyone with a job is back to work.
Q: Have you been able to place individuals in new jobs since resuming services?
A: I am proud to say that we have been able to place 3 individuals in the past month. The placements have been at Home Depot, Jewel and at an E-recycling warehouse called Liquid Technology. Remarkably, even with all of the obstacles we have faced with the pandemic, we have been able to secure a total of 6 new job placements so far in 2020.
Q: Any thoughts on the current job market?
A: We are seeing more placements in “essential worker” jobs such as grocery stores, but food service is in decline. There are a lot of work from home jobs starting to pop up but those aren’t always the best fit for the individuals we serve due to limited technology experience. Because many of the individuals that we work with happen to have underlying health conditions, the safety of the worksite where they are placed is something that we need to take into extra consideration.
One thing that is very concerning is the very real possibility of a surge in COVID cases in the Fall and Winter months which might cause businesses to temporarily or permanently shut down as a result. That would be the worst outcome for program participants. But we have tried to assure everyone that if this happens, we will cope with it together!
Look for more regarding our NDEAM celebration on Search social media accounts during October! If you would like to learn more about NDEAM, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy has several suggestions and resources for employers and organizations here.