Preserving Employment for People with Disabilities during COVID-19
By: David Ross, Benchmark Vice President
Over the last decade, Benchmark has helped thousands of individuals with disabilities find and keep meaningful work. Having meaningful work is powerful and this is just as true for a person who happens to have a disability as it is for those without. Benchmark has valued employment as a fundamental, normalizing part of life for persons served from our founding 60 years ago. Throughout our years of service, Community Employment has weathered the ups and downs of state-funding/systems changes, changing unemployment rates and the state of the economy. The COVID-19 pandemic presented us with new challenges in terms of job placement and training services.
When COVID hit in March, many employers shut down, our state referral source slowed, and many individuals we serve were fearful to go out. People we had placed into jobs encountered furloughs and layoffs. In residential services, the work is evident and the demand for our services increased. For community employment services, it has always been true that we have to create our work to have any work — even more so in these unusual times.
One of our core operating values is that when people are unemployed or underemployed, (disability or not; pandemic or not), that ought to be met with a sense of urgency. We also believe that the people we serve are more important than the jobs we do. So what do you do in these unprecedented times? Former Benchmark CEO, Bill Swiss, was instrumental in shaping my thinking many years ago in reinforcing the habit of “focusing on things you can control/influence.” Rather than retreating, some of the things I think we have done right and continue to do right to adjust to “COVID realities” include:
• Distinguish ourselves from other providers by not stopping services at any point.
• Ask ourselves, “What do folks need during this difficult and scary time – not just as it relates to employment, but to basic needs?” For example: We can combine a visit to a food bank and see if we can set up a job trial while picking up food for the person as they need both.
• Leverage virtual approaches to service delivery immediately. Which might mean extra training and leveraging the network of persons served.
• Create specific lists of meaningful discovery and post-employment support activities for staff to continue delivering.
• Emphasize that relationships with employers are key – we have been able to help make adjustments to jobs if this will help keep a person employed.
• Help individuals served through inevitable layoffs.
• Don’t assume there is no hiring going on – in fact, some employers have heightened needs.
• Define what is most meaningful for the current situation for each person served (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), and do it.
• Pitch the “case management-type supports” to Vocational Rehabilitation funder as a meaningful activity.
• Monitor staff productivity even if it is redefined a bit.
From March through November we have managed to place 45 people into new jobs and assist 30 people with layoffs/furloughs. 80% of the layoffs/furloughs from spring/early summer have returned to work. There has been a recent uptick in layoffs again, but Community Employment Services continues to generate meaningful outcomes.
We are not out of the woods. Our greatest concern at this point is that our state referral source, as their numbers continue to diminish, will send us fewer and fewer referrals. While this is a big concern, so far we have leveraged good outcomes and have good relationships with all customers. I’m very proud of the Community Employment Services team’s efforts to support individuals and to generate meaning employment outcomes despite the circumstances. I love their relentless effort and appreciate how true to our 60-year roots we have remained.