When Nova Services, a nonprofit corporation that provides job training and placement to disadvantaged and developmentally disabled people, approached John Crow eight months ago about contracting with it, Crow hesitated. Hed employed disabled people before, as well as prison inmates, and neither venture had produced positive results for his company, the contracted workers, or his employees.
Bob Ziemer, a commercial operations manager with Nova, pressed on, however, and persuaded Crow that his Spokane-based pizza-pan and equipment-making business, Lloyd Industries Inc., would benefit from such a partnership. Crow yielded, and now says Novas disadvantaged and developmentally disabled workers play a vital role in his business operations.
Its been a real positive experience, Crow says. They seem to be really appreciative of the opportunity to work, and theyre always in a good mood, which is refreshing. They bring a naivet to the job that not all of us do every day.
Nova, which opened here 20 years ago, operates three types of programs: group-supported employment, which puts groups of eight or fewer people to work at the sites of local businesses, such as Lloyd Industries; individual-supported employment, which sets up employment for individuals at business sites and tracks their progress; and specialized industry, which provides assembly services at Novas facility for companies, such as Columbia Lighting Inc. and Telect Inc., that subcontract out assembly work. Some Spokane companies, such as Plus Manufacturing Inc., which makes cleaning products, and IMAC, a paint-chip repair company, have Nova handle all of their production and shipping needs rather than operating their own production and shipping facilities, says Linda Brennan, Novas executive director.
Usually, we can help an employer one way or another, she says. The work is varied. It goes from very minute, fine-dexterity tasks up to large, gross-motor packaging.
Nova began in 1983 when Brennan sought and obtained an $80,000 grant to help transition eight severely disabled people out of an institution. From that seed, she planted and grew the organization.
Nova had revenue of $1.1 million last year, down from a record $1.5 million in 2001. Brennan attributes the decline in 2002 to the sharp cuts many Spokane manufacturing companies made in light of the weak economy.
Novas management team finds business partnerships by attending community business meetings and vendor fairs, but builds most of its relationships through word-of-mouth referrals, Brennan says. Client businesses pay Nova based on each workers piece rate, and then Nova pays its workers.
Piece rate refers to the estimated efficiency needed to accomplish a particular task. Someone who works at 100 percent of the capacity of an average, able-bodied employee would earn $7.25 an hour, Brennan says. Each Nova worker is paid based upon the degree to which he or she can reach that level.
For example, Annette Seeley, a young woman who is blind, wraps labels around plastic bottles of carpet cleaner. By touch, Annette can distinguish which end of the label is up and which is down. She dresses the bottles at an estimated 70 percent of the pace that a worker without disabilities would, so her hourly pay rate is about $5, Brennan says.
Through Novas group-supported employment program, social workers accompany the contracted employees to clients job sites. They stay with them throughout the workday and supervise them as they complete their tasks. Crow, of Lloyd Industries, says that component of the program is the key to its success at his company.
The supervisor makes or breaks the deal, he says. It takes a special skilla social workers mentality rather than a production persons mentalityto make it work.
At Crows company, Nova employees work together to polish pizza pans and to package products. Among the items the company makes are cake, candle, and soap molds that come in various designs, including Christmas- and sports-themed shapes. The Nova workers enjoy packaging those items the most, Crow says.
When Crow asks his own employees to do such tasks, they feel like theyre being punished, he says, but these guys just love it. Were taking a job that normally makes someone feel bad and giving it to somebody who really loves doing it.
Pride of craftsmanship also is apparent back at Novas 20,000-square-foot plant in the Spokane Business & Industrial Park in the Spokane Valley. On a recent Thursday, about 30 people were working on various projects there. Several proudly displayed their handiwork, including David Petch and Wade Bishop, two developmentally disabled workers, who were inserting metal springs into rails that were to become components in fluorescent light panels. Some were packaging cleaning products or getting ready to clean hotel rooms at La Quinta Inn & Suites, which is located near Novas offices.
Nova employs 30 able-bodied employees as office staff members and social workers and provides jobs and training to about 150 people with physical or mental disabilities or economic disadvantages, Brennan says. The number of disabled and disadvantaged people served byand who work forNova fluctuates, but in 2002, the nonprofit helped a total of 275 of them, and it also found independent jobs for 75 workers who it had trained.
Nova receives funding from the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services, the states Division of Developmental Dis-abilities, the Spokane County Community Services Department, Washington state Di-vision of Vocational Rehabilitation, and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Brennan is concerned, however, that funding from Washington state agencies will shrink in light of the $2 billion-plus budget shortfall the Legislature is facing.
Gov. Gary Lockes proposed budget recommends eliminating all funding for the states specialized-industry program, says Ed Penhale, a spokesman for the state budget office.
That would eliminate money for 1,400 jobs for people with disabilities statewide, he says. Rehabilitation Enterprises of Washing-ton (REW), a trade association to which Brennan belongs, claims 90 jobs in Spokane and 27 at Nova would be lost due to the proposed $9 million cut.
Its going to cost more than it saves, Brennan says. The state will have to pay for (people with disabilities) to be home, supervised all day. The state will lose federal matching money and lose the tax money of people earning a living.
Brennan says she believes legislators will reject that piece of Lockes budget for those reasons.
Ivan Day, president of Plus Manufacturing, has been a Nova client for 10 years and says he cant imagine running his business without Novas services.
He originally contracted with Nova for altruistic reasons, but says hes continued to do business with Nova because of the quality of labor its workers provide.
Their quality of work, their craftsmanship, their dependability is good, and they put their heart and soul into what they do, Day says.
Brennans degree in psychology from Eastern Washington University didnt prepare her to work in manufacturing, packaging or shipping, she says.
Still, her goal is to diversify the services Nova provides to its clients so that the corporation can employ more people in need, including aging adults. Within the next couple of years, she hopes her staff can develop a proprietary product at Novas facility that can be produced by the disabled and disadvantaged people the corporation employs.
She says her favorite part of the job is building relationships with people with disabilities, and watching their progress toward becoming independent. She speaks proudly of the workers, including David, who is employed as a box folder at two Pizza Hut Inc. outlets in addition to working at Novas production facility.
My goal is for everyone to move on from here, but without this link, a lot of people wouldnt get a chance, she says.
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