For many adults, self-image is tied directly to one’s job.
Employment makes a person feel like part of the community — a contributing member of society, said Beth Kahiga, executive director of Napa Valley Support Services. Without employment or other meaningful activity, people become prone to depression and other mental health issues. This is especially true for disabled adults, who face even fewer job opportunities, she said.
Napa Valley Support Services is a nonprofit organization that provides skill-building services, employment assistance and other programs for adults with disabilities. One of its programs — Napa Personnel Systems — helps clients find, learn and maintain jobs.
Whole Foods Market in Napa currently employs two of the program’s clients, including Anna Ernest, who works as a courtesy clerk bagging groceries, helping people to their cars and cleaning up the dining area near the front of the store.
Ernest initially started as a dishwasher at Whole Foods, but when the job proved to be too fast-paced, the company carved out a new courtesy clerk position to keep her employed. Ernest said her favorite things about the job are “the people” and the “sense of family” among her co-workers.
Napa Personnel Systems, a Support Services program, places clients in jobs throughout Napa Valley. The program, which serves clients with a wide range of physical and developmental disabilities, receives referrals and funding from the California Department of Rehabilitation and the North Bay Regional Center. Napa Personnel Systems currently has 115 clients, 60 of whom have been placed in jobs and 55 who are still looking for work.
Ernest has been working at the local Whole Foods since it opened about four years ago. As a disabled adult, she is one of the lucky ones to have found work.
“For people with disabilities, employment is always low,” Kahiga said, adding that roughly 80 percent of disabled adults are unemployed.
Most of Napa Personnel System’s clients are placed in entry-level jobs that involve simple and repetitive tasks. But these jobs have become harder to find as companies and other organizations cut costs.
Some fast food restaurants, for example, no longer hire people to clean their front lobby areas — a once-popular position for adults with disabilities. Many dishwashing positions at various restaurants also have been cut, as have retail stocking positions at some local stores.
Kahiga said some employers are hesitant to hire disabled people because they worry the costs will outweigh the benefits — but she said the opposite is more often true.
Employers receive tax benefits and normally have lower turnover rates among disabled employees, Kahiga said. Napa Personnel Systems assists with all of the paperwork involving the employee, and the nonprofit also acts as a recruiting service, so employers can be involved as much or as little as they want in the hiring process.
Napa Personnel Systems also provides a job coach — free to the employer — to train and support its clients. Clients who find employment also rely less on taxpayer-funded social services.
Kahiga said the biggest benefit to hiring someone with disabilities is the enthusiasm they bring to the job.
Dallas Lehman, who manages an office building near downtown Napa, hired a crew from Napa Personnel Systems two months ago to handle all the janitorial services for his building. Lehman said he was initially “skeptical” of hiring disabled people, especially since they required several job coaches to train and supervise them. But since they completed training, all but one of the job coaches left — and the crew has a better work ethic than any other janitorial services he’s hired, Lehman said.
“They get more work done, and they have a great attitude,” he said. “They want to be here, and that’s the big difference.”
Lehman said the cleaning crew’s enthusiasm has even boosted the morale of tenants, which doesn’t surprise Kahiga. She said employers often credit their disabled employees for creating a more positive work environment, mainly because they’re so motivated to work.
“It makes a big difference to see someone with a smile on their face, who’s excited to be there,” Kahiga said. “That excitement rubs off.”