In June 2020, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities rose to 16.5%, compared to 11% for workers without a disability, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While this high statistic is a result of pandemic-related layoffs and other challenges, it comes with disappointment as we celebrate this week the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that sought to secure equality for employment opportunities for workers with disabilities.
Over the last four months—since the time when Pennsylvania and New Jersey went into lockdowns in late March—staff at the various employment-focused programs at JEVS turned their energies to tackle many scenarios for clients with disabilities:
How to assist the 51 clients who lost their jobs due to business closures.
How to assist the 26 clients who were essential workers and needed to continue to work.
How to assist clients to return to work once their employers reopened.
How to assist clients to find new jobs.
How to work with employers to hire JEVS jobseekers for open positions when there’s a saturated applicant pool with people desperate for work.
Lost Jobs, But Not Hope
For the large number of program participants with disabilities who lost jobs as a result of COVID-19, staff in the JEVS hireAbility and JEVS Independence Network programs provided an array of supportive services to help individuals cope and reassess their options. Madeline Schlusser, a career navigator with JEVS, describes some of these services:
- Offering virtual “work skills” group sessions twice a week to prepare clients for workforce re-entry; create a safe place for them to support one another through significant employment and life changes; and continue to foster a strong culture of employment
- Conducting weekly individual employment meetings to establish and support individual re-entry strategies
- Providing guidance and support to program participants to identify and access available benefits
- Offering weekly individual career planning meetings for those who wanted to use this time to plan for and pursue career advancement opportunities
“The biggest part of this challenge is managing our clients’ anxieties,” said Schlusser. She held a virtual mental health series on “mindfulness” workshops, and encouraged individuals to download apps like “Calm” and “Headspace” for breathing, relaxing and meditative exercises to reduce the stress.
Supporting Essential Workers & Essential Businesses
Many JEVS program participants with disabilities were fortunate and deemed essential workers at supermarkets and convenience stores. Acme, Giant, Wegmans and Wawa locations throughout the region kept a majority of individuals employed during the lockdown, hired our clients, or held positions when our clients opted to quarantine during the spring.
“Wawa has been very accommodating to our clients,” said Angela Lucas, employment manager at JEVS. “One of the general managers has been great to work with, always cooperative and understanding of our clients’ needs during the lockdown period and now. He reaches out to resolve potential issues so that individuals are best supported to do their jobs well and safely.”
For our program participants who never stopped working, they and their JEVS case workers faced a different, new set of challenges. Many trainings, videos and even reminder tools like laminated “To Do Lists” emerged, to teach clients—many of whom struggle with change or need coaching—the “new normal” when it came to workplace practices.
“They were nervous about being at or returning to work,” said Schlusser. “We had many conversations with clients about how to work safely, social distance with customers and coworkers, and protect themselves upon returning home by showering right away, changing clothes, and disinfecting door handles.”
As the region slowly opens up this summer, JEVS job developers have turned their focus to helping the dozens upon dozens of clients who were furloughed or let go to return to work. For many, this means reevaluating interests and employment goals for those who say they “just need a paycheck.”
“Stores continue to be a prime employer for our job seekers,” said Jasmine Jones, a community employment specialist with JEVS. “Our clients have filled shelf-stocking positions, as well as order-picking positions that have become such an important part of our new way of shopping safely these days with order deliveries and curbside order pick-ups. For many of our clients, they were overjoyed to be hired at this point, even if working in a store didn’t necessarily match their career interests pre-pandemic.”
JEVS staff has also needed to find creative and new ways to connect clients with disabilities to job openings during the current environment of a competitive applicant market.
“One of the Lowes stores in New Jersey was willing to participate in a Zoom video conference job club with our clients who are seeking employment,” said Lucas. “A participant was hired as a result, and Lowes told us it was a great experience to screen and hire in this way.”
Roxanne Goes Back to Work
Roxanne is a 33-year-old client with JEVS hireAbility program. She has worked part-time for Aramark as a housekeeper at Temple University Health Sciences campus for the last year-and-a-half. At the beginning of the lockdown period, she voluntarily self-quarantined and wasn’t paid during her leave.
She returned last month to her usual schedule/hours with job coaching help from Jasmine Jones. Roxanne’s assigned building is the student faculty center, but faculty are working remotely, so the building is pretty empty. She and her coworkers have been focusing on preparing the building for recommended social distancing when the fall semester starts up (removing chairs, adding signage, blocking water fountains, etc.).
Roxanne has a really positive attitude about her return.
“I’m excited to be back at work because I really like my job, and I’m grateful to still have it,” she said. “It is really the only time I get to leave the house.”
Laura & Nicole Go Back to Work
Laura and Nicole are members of JEVS Philadelphia Independence Network, a supported community living program in Narberth. They were out of work when their employer, an early childhood learning center called Kids Corner, was closed for three months. Madeline Schlusser had been working with them to prepare for work reentry. Meanwhile, the employer held weekly check-ins via Zoom with employees to keep them engaged and motivated about their eventual return to the building.
As of this week, Laura and Nicole have been back at work for a month—strictly adhering to the new guidelines from the CDC and the PA Department of Human Services—and have managed the transition back into the workforce seamlessly.
“Our staff at JEVS is very impressed by how seriously both members are taking their responsibilities, said Schlusser. “They have been able to use all of the strategies and tools we discussed these last two months in our group meetings, and understand the importance of following the guidelines while at work and at home to ensure the children and families they support stay safe.”
“Working with infants and small kids, we had to go through many guidelines for safety,” said Laura. “We are so happy to be back at work because we get to see the children in the daycare again and interact with them.”