STATE OF THE SPECTRUM
By Mike Ryan
Walgreen’s center puts people with disabilities to work
By STEVE HAMEL
WINDSOR -- Inside the Walgreen’s distribution center on International Drive, Paul Mazzoli is hard at work in the “detrash” department, where a steady stream of packages have to be opened and their contents removed. Today, Mazzoli is slicing open packages with a specially marked box cutter and removing Clairol hair coloring from its packaging for shipping to Walgreens retail stores throughout the Northeast.
Like many of his co-workers, Mazzoli has an autism spectrum disorder. When the distribution center opened in May of 2008, the goal was for one third of the center’s workforce to be made up of individuals with disabilities. According to outreach manager Joe Wendover, the facility has surpassed that goal, as 47 percent of its 430 employees have some sort of cognitive or physical disability.
In 2010, Walgreens ranked second, behind Hewlett-Packard, on CAREERS & the disABLED magazine’s survey of the top 50 employers who provide the most positive working environment for people with disabilities.
Nineteen of those employees have a disability that falls on the autism spectrum and reminders of Walgreens’ commitment to autism awareness are everywhere, from a large wooden sign at the front gate in the shape of a puzzle piece, the international symbol for autism, to the Autism Speaks logo on the door to Wendover’s office.
Walgreens first began hiring workers with disabilities in June of 2007 at its distribution center in Anderson, S.C. at the suggestion of Randy Lewis, the company’s vice president of distribution and logistics. Lewis’ son, Austin, has autism, which motivated Lewis to provide jobs for qualified candidates with disabilities. The Windsor center became the second facility to hire workers with disabilities when it opened in 2008. Now every Walgreens distribution center in the United States and Puerto Rico hires a certain percentage of employees with disabilities, but only the Anderson, S.C. and Windsor centers have crossed the “one-third” threshold.
Prior to joining Walgreens, Mazzoli worked at Stop and Shop, but lost his job because his employer did not want to deal with the behavioral problems associated with his disability. Wendover says Mazzoli has a tendency to yell, swear and get very aggressive when he feels stressed.
Watching Mazzoli work, one’s eye is immediately drawn to his unusual box cutter. Spray painted with blue and yellow stripes and adorned with an image of the Marvel comic book character Wolverine, Mazzoli’s knife matches his t-shirt, which features a Big Dogs parody of Wolverine.
To help Mazzoli deal with stress, Wendover had five box cutters painted and decorated with different characters including Wolverine, Yoda from Star Wars, Link from the Nintendo video game “The Legend of Zelda,” and Ironhide from Transformers. Mazzoli enjoys video games and movies, so the ability to choose which character he uses on any given day makes his job more fun.
Wendover also gave Mazzoli “break cards” depicting Yoda and a character from the television series “Futurama.” At any time, Mazzoli can hand one of the break cards to his manager if he feels stressed and take a two-minute break to calm down. As a result, Mazzoli’s angry outbursts occur less frequently than when he began working at Walgreens in January 2009.
At Walgreens, workers with and without disabilities work side-by-side, earning equal pay and equal benefits. The Windsor distribution center services over 600 stores from Manhattan to Maine, and Wendover says its unique environment has created a more dedicated, loyal and honest workforce that has made it the most successful Walgreens distribution center in the country in terms of productivity, accuracy, morale and safety.
“It’s about this culture that we’ve built,” Wendover said. “And that’s what’s built the morale and made it a really great place to work.”
That culture is evident watching Wendover walk from station to station, greeting employees by name and asking them how their day is going. Banners with inspirational quotes like, ‘If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door,’ hang from the walls and a positive energy seems to radiate throughout the building.
Each work station is marked by a number and an object. Because some of Walgreens’ employees cannot read numbers, an image of an object is used to make it easier for employees to find the correct work station. Stations in Mazzoli’s department are marked by images of animals like dogs, ladybugs and turtles. The receiving department, where workers scan cases of arriving products, has a transportation theme, where images of trains, wagons, trucks and tractors are used to mark work stations.
Additionally, each work station is equipped with a monitor, which displays two bars that light up green when a worker is meeting or exceeding Walgreens’ standards for productivity and accuracy. The bars turn red when productivity and accuracy rates fall below those standards. The display is very visual, making it easy for workers to see if they need to improve their rates.
Beyond job training, which is handled by a non-profit organization called Community Enterprises, all prospective employees, disabled or not, go through two hours of disability sensitivity training with Wendover. Wendover also does what he can to help his employees outside of the workplace.
“Sometimes it’s dating advice, sometimes it’s how to make friends, sometimes it’s places to go shopping for clothes or food,” he said. “It just really depends on the support network that they have at home. If they’re living with their family, there’s little that I’m going to have to give them advice for. But there are some folks that live in group homes and state-run facilities. They are lacking some things at home.”
Employees were too busy working to be interviewed, but Wendover shared his thoughts on a few members of the Walgreens staff who have autism spectrum disorders.
One employee on the spectrum, Tim Glynn, was hired in January of 2009. Like Mazzoli, Glynn unpacks product cases in the detrash department. He is very independent and recently bought his own condominium, but his disability affects his social skills and he has had difficulty finding a date, though that may be because, as Wendover put it, “he’s looking for a girl who looks like Pamela Anderson.”
“He’s super successful,” Wendover said. “It’s the social problem that’s really, really hard for him.”
Bryan Handy was also hired in 2009. Typically Handy works in receiving, but on this day he is helping in detrash. He lives at home with his mother and does not drive himself to work. “If I compare Paul or Tim and then compare them with Bryan, they’re very different,” Wendover said. “Socially, (Bryan) will not sit down and have a conversation with you unless you ask him a question.”
Walgreens is the first job Handy has ever had, but he has been as successful as any other employee at the distribution center, Wendover said.
People with disabilities who appear to be good candidates to work at Walgreens are usually recommended through schools or state agencies like the Bureau for Rehabilitative Services (BRS) or the Department of Developmental Services (DDS). Some fill out an application, get interviewed and go out on the floor right away. Others, typically individuals who have never had a job before, go through an 18-week training program, which Walgreens contracts Community Enterprises to run.
The program is broken down into two nine-week phases. The first phase is unpaid and lasts five hours a day. In this phase, social skills, teamwork and eye contact are emphasized, and Walgreens’ policies and OSHA techniques for lifting heavy objects are taught. Trainees also simulate working on jobs called “case check-in” --scanning large cases of products as they come in off the trucks; “detrash ” -- opening cases and removing products from packaging; and “pick-to-light machines” -- sorting products into orders for shipping to retail stores.
Applicants who successfully complete phase one move on to the transitional work group phase (TWG). In TWG, trainees are paid $10 an hour to work on the floor alongside full-time employees, where they gain experience and work to get their production and accuracy rates up to Walgreens’ standards.
Program director Carla Gaouette estimates that nearly 99 percent of applicants who successfully complete both phases of training are offered jobs at the distribution center.
“If you go into TWG, there is a position open for you at Walgreens,” Gaouette said. “So the idea is if at the end of nine weeks and you never leave the job, you transition from Community Enterprises’ payroll at $10 an hour on Friday to Walgreens’ payroll on Monday at $14.50.”
The cost of training one person is $37 a day during the course of the 18-week program, according to Gaouette. Walgreens is not responsible for any of the training costs. Instead, Community Enterprises receives half its funding for the program from the Walgreens Training Program Grant, provided by the Connecticut Bond Commission. The other half of its funding comes from state agencies including the BRS and DDS.
The training grant will run out in December, at which point the distribution center is expected to be operating near full capacity, so the program will be training significantly fewer people and state agencies will pay the entire bill, she said. Since the program’s inception toward the end of 2008, 118 people have successfully completed the 18-week training and received jobs. All but five are still at Walgreens, she said.
While the program focuses on teaching job skills, some graduates have found it has other benefits. Steven Riley, who was hired in January, 2009, met his fiancée while they were both participating in the program. Riley has an autism spectrum disorder and was told by his previous employer he would never do anything other than push carts. After completing the program, Riley got a job working in the detrash department.
“He’s super successful,” Wendover said. “He does struggle socially a little bit, but he does the job, comes in everyday. You can’t really complain.”
Workers on the autism spectrum make up a small percentage of the distribution center’s workforce. Gaouette says this is because the state agencies Walgreens relies on for referrals have requirements that disqualify many people with autism.
“Depending on how you fall, you might not fit the need for supports,” she said. “They may not think you fit the need of getting DDS supports or getting supports from BRS or something like that, so its been a difficult thing for that particular population to be served.”
Gaouette believes those requirements will change in the wake of a DDS pilot program designed to help adults with autism be more independent.
Walgreens’ unique hiring initiative is beginning to catch on in Connecticut. Other businesses including T.J.X., Lowe’s and J.C. Penney have contacted Wendover expressing interest in starting similar hiring programs, and Walgreens is about to pilot programs in its retail stores in Windsor Locks, Enfield and elsewhere.
Lois Rosenwald, executive director of the Connecticut Autism Spectrum Resource Center, says the Walgreens model has been beneficial to the autism community in Connecticut, but much more work needs to be done to solve the unemployment problem facing adults with autism.
“Certainly it has given not only jobs to some, but great hope to the community,” she said. “But this is a huge spectrum disorder and we need a number of different models of employment.”
Likewise, Shannon Knall, advocacy chair of the Connecticut chapter of Autism Speaks, is thrilled with the opportunity Walgreens has given adults with autism in Connecticut and hopes other businesses will follow the Walgreens model.
“I hope it catches on because not everyone can work at the Walgreens distribution center,” she said.
Wendover admits there are some challenges that come with employing individuals with autism, but he says those challenges are not all that different from the normal challenges of running a huge distribution center.
“I think the challenge is that everybody’s different,” he said. “One strategy with one person isn’t going to work with another person.
“But then I think that’s also a challenge with people without autism. Everybody’s different, everybody brings their own idiosyncrasies to everything.”