Special-needs workers create opportunities for businesses

  • CHRIS MCCARTHY

    CHRIS MCCARTHY

 
Updated 12/13/2019 2:41 PM

It's no secret that recycling is good for the planet. What I didn't realize is that the type of labor-intensive paint recycling we do at EarthPaint.org can help people with special needs on a daily basis.

After a conversation with the manager of a special needs organization's employment placement department, I saw a way to provide paint recycling services while creating opportunities for people that aren't typically part of the mainstream workforce.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

By the end of the first paint recycling day I knew we had something special. Not only were these workers incredibly productive, but they had a blast. You could tell these guys enjoyed the hands-on work, and had fun doing it.

Six years later, and we're still having fun. Not only that, but my team of 14 is learning skills that help them in all aspects of life, and also help them to live more independent lives. Working in our facility, my crew has developed skills that help them at work and at home. They learn how to work with others, and how to be patient during the mixing process; they use math and learn to make independent decisions. They learn how goal setting can inspire great work.

So I consider myself lucky to work alongside my team, doing good things for our planet and our community. It's so clear to me that investing in special-needs workers is a winning solution for organizations, whether they're for-profit or nonprofit.

I'm not the only one. More businesses are seeing the value in special-needs workers amid a historically tight job market. In fact, the unemployment rate of this workforce is 8 percent, the lowest it's been since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking it in 2008. With record-low unemployment in general, these workers represent an opportunity to companies that need to fill jobs in order to grow.

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We know, however, that those numbers don't reflect people who have stopped looking for work, or maybe never even joined the workforce. Unfortunately, some disabled Americans will never be able to hold a job, but for many in the Chicago area, their disabilities are not the only things stopping them from being gainfully employed. Sometimes just getting to work is impossible.

We need better transportation options for this population. Many of our teammates are not able to use public transportation because of their level of mobility or cognition. While our public transit entities have made great strides in making trains and buses more accessible, that doesn't solve the problem for many workers, and the organizations that facilitate special-needs workers' jobs are spread too thin to provide transportation. We need more state -- or even private -- investment in services that can get these workers to their jobs. Imagine an Uber for special-needs workers.

We also need to respect these workers. In Illinois, it's legal to pay special-needs workers below minimum wage. We choose to pay our team rates that are in line with minimum wage. I teach our staff why people earn money and how companies set labor rates for different positions. We help our team understand the value of tasks completed and why they bring value to an organization.

Lastly, we need to overcome misconceptions that special-needs workers are unable to perform as well as able-bodied workers. In the right environment, business leaders will see that these workers can do the job just as well, if not better, than the staff that they currently have who are not classified as special needs. Not only that, they bring enthusiasm to work that most of us take for granted.

At EarthPaint.org, our team helps reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions by creating an affordable, sustainable and high-quality paint product. Perhaps even more than that, we're able to change lives. Now that's paint with a purpose.

• Chris McCarthy is founder of EarthPaint.org. www.earthpaint.org.

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