Workers with Disabilities Exceed Expectations

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR September 23, 2009

Walgreens “got serious” about hiring people with disabilities “about five or six years ago,” according to Randy Lewis, senior vice president of distribution and logistics for Walgreens Co., who spoke near Washington, D.C., Sept. 17, 2009, as part of the US Business Leadership Network (USBLN) 2009 Annual Conference. Walgreens was making plans to build new distribution centers at the time and decided to build one that would enable those with physical and cognitive disabilities to work.

“We aimed very high,” said Lewis, who explained that they wanted one-third of the 600 employees the company expected to hire for its Anderson, S.C. center to have a disability.

Lewis’ inspiration came partly from personal experience; his 21-year old son has autism.

The center, which opened in 2007, has reached its goal, employing individuals with autism, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries and Down syndrome. These employees work side by side with nondisabled co-workers for the same pay and are subject to the same standards.

“We all have different ways of talking and we all have different ways of walking, but everyone can do the job,” he said. That’s a critical consideration, according to Lewis: “We are not a charity. We have shareholders. We are a business.”

Walgreens has received plenty of favorable media attention, as evidenced by an ABC News clip found on YouTube. But the company has reaped far greater rewards.

“What surprised us was the culture that this created,” Lewis said. “It changed us. There’s a sense of purpose, a sense of being, a sense of teamwork.”

In the past, when Lewis met with groups of employees he would receive questions such as “when will this equipment work properly?” and “when can we get Saturday off?” But when he meets with Anderson employees he is asked things like “how are we doing?” and “what can we do to help?”

Moreover, the center has fewer accidents, lower insurance costs, lower turnover and no labor/management issues. “People say it’s going to cost a lot [to employ people with disabilities]. It’s not,” Lewis said.

This is partly because every manager needs to really get to know every employee. “Once you have seen one person with a disability you have seen one person with a disability,” Lewis quipped. But he said everyone recognizes the importance of seeing every person as a unique and valued individual.

“We knew we would have to train a little bit differently, and we do,” he said.

The company made computer screens easier to read, with large pictures and few words. It found that it was much easier to train new employees, whether they have a disability or not.

Lewis said that little changes put in place by creative supervisors have corrected minor performance issues. For example, an individual with obsessive-compulsive disorder was directed to focus her attention on the number of boxes she handled as opposed to how neatly she opened each box. An employee’s personal space issues were resolved with brightly colored tape and a sign that marked his work area clearly.

Moreover, individuals that would be overlooked by other employers are among the most productive the center employs. A man with mental retardation is the most productive employee, he said, and the third most productive employee is a young man with autism who can’t complete a simple math problem but whose productivity exceeds the standard by 50 percent. “The most productive center we have in our 100-year history is Anderson,” Lewis said.

Consequently, the company brought management from other centers to Anderson to learn. As a result, other centers—even those lacking automation—are beginning to adopt similar practices. The company has set a goal to employ 1,000 people with disabilities (or 10 percent of its distribution center workforce) by 2010. As of Sept. 17, the company had 676.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Can Hiring One Employee with a Disability Make a Difference?, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, March 30, 2009

Disability Inclusion Requires Common Sense, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, Nov. 6, 2008

Disabled People Can Do Real Jobs, Employers Find, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, May 1, 2007


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