Deerfield, Ill.-based Walgreen is among employers including Hershey and AMC Entertainment actively recruiting workers with disabilities as a way to gain a loyal work force, tap overlooked talent and add diversity.
Such efforts could be crucial as more people with physical and mental challenges who attended school after the 1990 passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act reach adulthood. Students who took advantage of expanded educational opportunities know they have skills and expect to work, said Randy Lewis, who retired in February from his job as Walgreen's senior vice president of supply chain and logistics.
"The expectation is rising, which is great," said Lewis, who has an adult son with autism and led the push for disabled hiring at Anderson. Opportunities aren't keeping pace, though: disabled people have been leaving the labor force in greater numbers following the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009 as competition increased for jobs.
"Is it going to get better fast enough?" Lewis said. "No, probably not."
In May, 17.9 percent of people with disabilities had jobs compared with 64.3 percent for those with no impairments, based on unadjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The ratio is down from its high of 21 percent in September 2008, during the first year data was kept, and has fallen 0.2 percentage point from a year ago, even as employment improved for the non-disabled population.
"There are a lot of companies getting on the bandwagon, but I also think we have a long way to go," National Governors Association Chairman Jack Markell, the Delaware governor who is heading a yearlong initiative to spur hiring of disabled Americans, said in an interview. "There are a lot of people with disabilities who would love to work but who are not given the opportunity."
Mackey said she had 65 interviews before the Anderson-based vocational rehabilitation center where she had interned hired her in 2000. After six years, she hadn't been promoted to the supervisory role she wanted.
Then a colleague introduced her to Lewis, who wanted to establish a distribution center that would hire a 30 percent disabled work force. They would be supported by technology, including individualized computer monitors at each repacking station to track progress and give directions. They would be held to the same standards as other workers and receive comparable pay.
"He said he felt that people with disabilities were just as capable as those without," Mackey said. "In my experience as a person with disabilities, I had never heard anyone say that."
Mackey signed on before the plant opened and helped to shape its workforce, now made up of 42 percent disabled employees. She performs the same role at a nearby Pendergrass, Ga., center, which opened later and has a labor force of 25 percent disabled workers.
On a late June afternoon, Mackey chatted amiably with workers at the Anderson center as they labored in a cavernous warehouse. They kept a quick tempo while transferring toiletries from whizzing conveyor belts into cardboard boxes.
Efforts like Walgreen's are catching on, said Jill Houghton, executive director of the U.S. Business Leadership Network, an Alexandria, Va.-based advocate for including the disabled in the workplace. The group talks to about four new companies weekly, Houghton said.
AMC also ranks among companies actively seeking people with disabilities for a variety of jobs. The movie theater chain began recruiting workers with disabilities in late 2009, starting with a pilot program in collaboration with the Bethesda, Md.-based Autism Society. The program has expanded and gained additional partners since.
"You end up being a healthier company from a lot of different perspectives: innovation, engagement, morale, productivity," said Keith Wiedenkeller, chief people officer.
Hershey is also benefitting after taking a page from Walgreen's playbook, said Victoria Zefran, a human resources generalist at the Hershey, Pa.-based confectioner.
"It supports our diversity inclusion," said Zefran. "We find a pipeline of talent that we haven't gone after before."
Of U.S. workers reporting a disability, 32.2 percent are in management, professional and related occupations, compared with 38.1 percent for the population without a disability, according to Current Population Survey data from 2012.
Advocacy groups and political leaders are promoting inclusion as a business choice. The National Governors Association plans to release a report in August that will show governors and states how to find more employment opportunities for people with disabilities, Markell said.
Employment statistics for those with disabilities have not improved even with such efforts. Job competition has grown as 11.8 million Americans in the labor force remained jobless as of May, according to Department of Labor data. Companies that once hired mentally and physically impaired workers as part of normal recruitment may now pass them up.
"When the labor market is very slack, as it has been for the past five years, employers start to say, 'Why should I settle for someone with just a college degree when I can have a PhD?' " said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who studies disability benefits. "Why should I hire someone with a disability?"
Work-force participation dropped and unemployment climbed for the disabled during and following the economic downturn, so that today only about one-fifth of the disabled population is active in the labor market. Of those, 13.6 percent couldn't find jobs in May, according to BLS data.
Many companies shy away from disabled workers out of concern that they will require expensive accommodation, Lewis said. Others view impaired employees as charity cases and hold them to lower production standards, he said, so they're first to be cut.
"That did not happen to us," he said.
Walgreen analyzed performance differences between distribution centers with disabled and non-disabled work forces. Employee turnover over three years was 48 percent less for those reporting a disability and productivity was roughly equal, according to a report.
More than 200 companies have toured Walgreen's Anderson facility, Mackey said.
Visitors see that the workspaces, with buzzing conveyor belts and thudding sounds of repacking, look simply like a high-tech warehouse. They meet people like Violet Gentry, 40, who has cerebral palsy and had never had a job before last year, rapidly reshuffling items, practically indistinguishable from those working nearby.
Lewis's book on his experiences, titled "No Greatness Without Goodness," was released in April. His own son, Austin, 25, benefits from Walgreen's latest undertaking: a program training disabled employees to work in retail stores.
"My son drives, and that was like graduating summa cum laude from MIT," Lewis said. "A job, that's like winning a Nobel Prize."
His son marks each month's paydays on a calendar Lewis got him to track his work schedule. "So yes, a job is important to him, too."