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More than 200 companies have toured Walgreen's Anderson, S.C., distribution center, which has a 500-person work force, almost half with disabilities. (Michael Schwarz/Bloomberg)
Walgreen, others actively recruit disabled to broaden diversity, gain loyalty
First Published Jul 03 2013 12:42 pm • Last Updated Jul 03 2013 12:43 pm

Angela Mackey says she struggled to land a job, even with a master’s degree earned with top grades, as employers focused on her cerebral palsy instead of her qualifications.

So Mackey, 37, who once sent out 250 resumes without success, regards her current job as a personal triumph. She holds a managerial position at Walgreen Co.’s Anderson, S.C., distribution center, hiring and performing human resource work for the 500-employee workplace.

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"Growing up having a disability, I was not an athlete, I never was a beauty queen, the playing field was not equal," said Mackey, who landed her role in 2006. "Working at Walgreen’s lets me show what I can accomplish. I am not just a woman with cerebral palsy."

Deerfield, Ill.-based Walgreen is among employers including Hershey and AMC Entertainment actively recruiting workers with disabilities as a way to gain a loyal work force, tap overlooked talent and add diversity.

Such efforts could be crucial as more people with physical and mental challenges who attended school after the 1990 passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act reach adulthood. Students who took advantage of expanded educational opportunities know they have skills and expect to work, said Randy Lewis, who retired in February from his job as Walgreen’s senior vice president of supply chain and logistics.

"The expectation is rising, which is great," said Lewis, who has an adult son with autism and led the push for disabled hiring at Anderson. Opportunities aren’t keeping pace, though: disabled people have been leaving the labor force in greater numbers following the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009 as competition increased for jobs.

"Is it going to get better fast enough?" Lewis said. "No, probably not."

In May, 17.9 percent of people with disabilities had jobs compared with 64.3 percent for those with no impairments, based on unadjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The ratio is down from its high of 21 percent in September 2008, during the first year data was kept, and has fallen 0.2 percentage point from a year ago, even as employment improved for the non-disabled population.

"There are a lot of companies getting on the bandwagon, but I also think we have a long way to go," National Governors Association Chairman Jack Markell, the Delaware governor who is heading a yearlong initiative to spur hiring of disabled Americans, said in an interview. "There are a lot of people with disabilities who would love to work but who are not given the opportunity."

Mackey said she had 65 interviews before the Anderson-based vocational rehabilitation center where she had interned hired her in 2000. After six years, she hadn’t been promoted to the supervisory role she wanted.

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Then a colleague introduced her to Lewis, who wanted to establish a distribution center that would hire a 30 percent disabled work force. They would be supported by technology, including individualized computer monitors at each repacking station to track progress and give directions. They would be held to the same standards as other workers and receive comparable pay.

"He said he felt that people with disabilities were just as capable as those without," Mackey said. "In my experience as a person with disabilities, I had never heard anyone say that."

Mackey signed on before the plant opened and helped to shape its workforce, now made up of 42 percent disabled employees. She performs the same role at a nearby Pendergrass, Ga., center, which opened later and has a labor force of 25 percent disabled workers.

On a late June afternoon, Mackey chatted amiably with workers at the Anderson center as they labored in a cavernous warehouse. They kept a quick tempo while transferring toiletries from whizzing conveyor belts into cardboard boxes.

Efforts like Walgreen’s are catching on, said Jill Houghton, executive director of the U.S. Business Leadership Network, an Alexandria, Va.-based advocate for including the disabled in the workplace. The group talks to about four new companies weekly, Houghton said.

AMC also ranks among companies actively seeking people with disabilities for a variety of jobs. The movie theater chain began recruiting workers with disabilities in late 2009, starting with a pilot program in collaboration with the Bethesda, Md.-based Autism Society. The program has expanded and gained additional partners since.

"You end up being a healthier company from a lot of different perspectives: innovation, engagement, morale, productivity," said Keith Wiedenkeller, chief people officer.

Hershey is also benefitting after taking a page from Walgreen’s playbook, said Victoria Zefran, a human resources generalist at the Hershey, Pa.-based confectioner.

"It supports our diversity inclusion," said Zefran. "We find a pipeline of talent that we haven’t gone after before."

Of U.S. workers reporting a disability, 32.2 percent are in management, professional and related occupations, compared with 38.1 percent for the population without a disability, according to Current Population Survey data from 2012.

Advocacy groups and political leaders are promoting inclusion as a business choice. The National Governors Association plans to release a report in August that will show governors and states how to find more employment opportunities for people with disabilities, Markell said.

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