Ready and Able
By Ron Adams and Rachel Vilsack
PDF of article
The Walgreens distribution center in Rogers illustrates the company’s commitment to hiring people with disabilities.
The Walgreens distribution center in the northwestern Twin Cities suburb of Rogers seems like any other warehouse, and in many respects it is. Forklifts unload pallets of goods. Conveyer belts move items to trucks. Managers and coworkers converse about the day’s duties.
Look closer, though, and you might notice some activities that aren’t as common, including how workers communicate. At daily meetings, managers share a sign of the day aimed at helping deaf and hearing team members learn to communicate more effectively. Once hearing workers are confident in their ability to demonstrate their signing skills, they are recognized at the team meetings with an award.
The Rogers facility isn’t unique for Walgreens. The Deerfield, Ill., based drugstore chain is nationally recognized for its commitment to hiring people with disabilities. Distribution centers across the country, which supply the company’s 7,500 Walgreens stores, have a goal of filling more than 20 percent of their jobs with workers who have disabilities.
The effort—originally championed by Randy Lewis, the senior vice president of supply chain and logistics at Walgreens headquarters—is led locally by Skip Walser, manager of operations at the Rogers Distribution Center.
“As far as we’re concerned, at Walgreens our employees that are deaf do not have a disability,” Walser said.
Walgreens’ vision is unusual, considering the reluctance of many companies to hire people with disabilities. The road for job seekers with disabilities often can be difficult in a competitive labor market. In Minnesota, where about 1 in 10 people has a disability the employment rate for working-age adults (ages 21 to 64) with disabilities was 44.3 percent in 2009, compared with 82 percent for people without disabilities
Many in the Minnesota disability community find help from DEED’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services, which provides counseling, job-search assistance, training and workplace accommodations to help people with disabilities achieve rewarding careers. Partnerships between workforce development officials and businesses can often connect those who are under-represented in the labor market with employers who value the skills and experience these workers bring to the job.
In Rogers, Vocational Rehabilitation Services helped company officials with recruiting, placing and providing supports for employees with disabilities.
Walgreens’ commitment to workers with disabilities grew out of an idea from company executive Lewis. In an interview in 2006, he said, “It is all about awareness. I have a son, Austin, who has autism. He is 18 years old now. Throughout his school years, I’ve met kids with all kinds of disabilities and become exposed to the different challenges that they have to deal with. But primarily I’ve come to see them all as individual people. I’ve come to realize how many kids with disabilities there are in all our communities. I’ve wondered what is going to happen to them when they graduate from school and who can make a difference in their futures. If we, at Walgreens, can’t make a difference for them, who can?
Walgreens has indeed made a difference. When the company announced plans to open a distribution center in Anderson, S.C., in 2007, it promised to hire people with disabilities for at least one-third of the 600 new jobs at the facility. Walgreens not only met its goal, but the distribution center swiftly became the most efficient and productive facility of its type in the company. Walgreens has since made it a company policy to hire significant numbers of people with disabilities at all of its distribution centers.
Randy Benintende (pictured), a Rogers distribution center employee who is deaf, appreciates his employer’s approach.
“Walgreens provides a nice work environment because everyone is willing to take extra time to explain things,” he said.
The first stop for all new Walgreens workers in Rogers is human resources, and one of the first people they meet is Claire Reeve. Reeve is instrumental in getting qualified candidates— disability or not—in the door.
“Claire is wonderful. If I ever have questions, she takes the time to help me,” Benintende said. “Claire hires interpreters for meetings when we need them, and she helped us get a video phone at work if we need to make a phone call.”
As of today, the facility in Rogers employs about two dozen workers with disabilities, some deaf or hard-of-hearing, and some who have other types of disabilities. One of those employees is Camelia Varga (pictured), who started working at the Rogers location in 2008. She has also been trained to drive a forklift.
“My last employer wouldn’t let me drive a forklift because I’m deaf,” she said. “At Walgreens, I can drive a forklift because job assignments are based on capabilities—not disabilities.”
One of the ways that Walgreens supports deaf employees is by hiring sign language interpreters and promoting signing in the workplace. Gary Hefty, who manages Varga, explained, “She’s helped me understand the challenges of having a disability, and she gets very excited when I use basic sign language, such as ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you.’”
Eric Guddal, one of the site’s function managers, promotes communication for deaf workers by taking time before work shifts to make sure everyone knows what’s going on for the evening. He’s gone out of his way to make sure the needs of deaf workers are met and even started the daily staff sign language lessons.
In 2011, the Minnesota Rehabilitation Association named the Rogers Distribution Center the Large Metro Employer of the Year for its commitment to hiring and supporting workers with disabilities.
The company is also committed to sharing its experiences with other businesses. Walgreens is a member of the U.S. Business Leadership Network, the only national business organization currently using a strategy that promotes the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce, marketplace and supply chain.
For Walgreens, it’s the ability of these workers that matters most.
1]U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey.
Employment and Disability Institute, Cornell University, www.disabilitystatistics.org. Data are from the U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey.
Inclusion@Work, August 2006.