This weekly feature offers questions answered by newsworthy business leaders. James M. Heller is president of the Maryland Corporate Partnership, an organization that helps employers find qualified disabled individuals to fill job vacancies. He was interviewed by staff writer Michelle Singletary.
Q. Maryland Corporate Partnership claims it can make it simple and profitable for employers to hire individuals with disabilities. Is this why the organization was formed?
A. Yes. We developed this for an outreach program for a group of CEOs that the governor had asked to spread the word on hiring persons with disabilities. Basically, what we did was develop a business-to-business approach showing corporations that it does make good business sense to hire persons with disabilities, getting away from the traditional philanthropic approach.
Q. When was the organization formed?
A. We started looking at it as a pilot program, as a quasi-state agency, in November of 1988. We incorporated it as a private business in August 1989.
Q. How are workers found for employers?
A. What we've done is amassed what we call our agency partners. Originally we thought there were 50 agencies in the state that provided services to people with disabilities [and were] oriented toward job placement. We found that there were 216. One hundred thirty-four of those have filled out our applications, and we designed a data bank that cross-references their ability to supply people with the needs of the corporate world.
Q. On that same note, how is the corporation different from other state or private organizations that service people with disabilities?
A. Well, we are a business-oriented corporation. We do not use the philanthropic approach. We are ability activists as opposed to disability activists. Our approach is not, "Can't you please create a job for this individual?" Our approach is that these individuals have capabilities and we want to show you how to use them.
Q. Before we go any further, can you tell me the type of individuals that you do service with disabilities? What type of disabilities do they have?
A. We like to say we service total disabilities, total capabilities. Disabilities, if you use the Americans With Disabilities Act, can range from something like diabetes to severely mentally challenged individuals in wheelchairs.
Q. Are the jobs especially created for the disabled individual?
A. No! It is one of the things that we insist from our corporate partners, and we're now servicing in excess of 600 corporations. We do not want special treatment. What we will do is show them how to creatively restructure jobs so that they can use individuals [with disabilities].
Q. Can you give me an example?
A. Let me give you an example of a program that we're really excited about, that we set up through Union Memorial Hospital. They had a need to pre-screen scheduled surgery patients. Well, we looked at the opportunity of doing this with home-based individuals. These are people who need to stay at home to work. What we did was set up a program with them where we have home-based individuals who are extremely computer-literate who do the screening of their surgical patients. When the surgical patients come into the hospital, 95 percent of the paper work is done. The hospital staff can do what they do best. It just streamlines the whole process.
The nice thing about it is that the paperwork is cut down considerably. It's all by electronic mail via computer and modem. And another nice thing is that the individuals working at home can contact people on off hours where you would traditionally be paying somebody overtime to do that type of thing. That's one application. An individual might have mobility limitations. So we will work with the manager in that area to compensate for those restrictions. And it can be something as simple as showing them how to reorganize their filing system so that a person in a chair can use it.
Q. Are these ideas that the corporation comes up with along with the employer?
L A. These are ideas that Maryland Corporate Partnership comes
up with. We look at the opportunity and situation within the corporate world. We then look at the abilities that we have that fit that particular job description, and we then creatively come up with a solution so that the corporation does not have to become the expert in the disability field.
Q. Are the jobs that the partnership helps find for the individuals minimum-wage jobs?
A. Absolutely not. One thing that we insist on is that this is not a cheap-labor group. We've placed lawyers, we've placed Ph.D.'s in research, right on down to entry-level jobs. Now, of course, the majority of the jobs are on the entry level, but most of them are geared toward the service industry. The technology, the data-entry individual, for instance, as opposed to the janitor. We've placed people in minimum wage to the highest documented wage that I am aware of, is in the $75,000 range.
Q. Where does the partnership get its funding?
A. From contracts with services, with various state agencies, and also fees that we charge the corporate sector. We have a number of research projects that we do for federal government agencies and these generate funds and people to fill jobs.
Q. Are you a state agency?
A. We are not a state agency. We are a private business. We were originally a quasi-public agency. The program was put together to examine the possibility of getting CEOs to sell other CEOs on the idea of hiring persons with disabilities. It was a joint venture between 10 CEOs, the Department of Economic and Employment -- specifically Randy Evans -- and the Maryland State Department of Education -- specifically Joe Schilling.
Q. What was your budget for 1990?
A. Our 1990 budget was $126,000. It's going to be about $130,000 this year. We're able to keep it low because we are low on manpower, very high on computer technology. You see yourself surrounded by computers.
Q. How many workers does the corporation employ?
Q. With two people you're able to place how many people?
A. Last year we placed 283 people.
Q. What exactly does the Americans With Disabilities Act say?
A. There are five sections to it. Let's just talk about the employment section. Basically what it says is that you cannot discriminate against an individual based on their disability if they can provide the essential functions of a job. Some people herald it as the civil rights legislation of the '90s. That might be a good analogy.
Q. How does the Americans With Disabilities Act help your organization?
A. We haven't seen a tremendous increase in activity yet, but we are suggesting to the corporate sector that they come on board now. And, that takes effect July 22, 1992.
Q. How will it encourage employers to hire people with disabilities when they can just say they don't have a job for them?
A. Well, the key is the essential job requirements. If you are going to structure your job descriptions to specifically eliminate the ability of a person in a wheelchair to do that, you would be subject to criticism for it.
Q. What does the employer have to do to provide employment for disabled persons?
A. We provide them with disability-awareness training. We work with their human-resource department toward affirmative action, toward disability issues. We provide them accessibility studies. Is my building in fact accessible to my staff and also my customer? One of the best things, the greatest asset, is we show them how to get financial benefits from hiring people with disabilities. How do you take advantage of your targeted job tax credits? What about your $15,000 tax write-off for accessibility? And these are the kinds of things that we work with the corporation, show them, how it does make good business sense. It definitely, positively affects your bottom line. Retention alone averages seven times greater.
Q. Are you saying that employers are more likely to keep a person with a disability?
A. Yes. By and large, and I don't want to sell people with disabilities as super people. You work with an individual with a disability, you might spend a little bit more time up front in the training, but you've got a dedicated employee. You've got a person that says thanks for the job. I'm going to show you that you have made a good decision. Retention as an example is seven times greater. Let me give you a quick retention example. We were dealing with a hospitality-industry provider in the Hunt Valley area. In their utilities and housekeeping section, they had an 84 percent turnover. Through programs that we initiated with some of our agency partners and the Baltimore County government, we cut that down to 11 percent. Does that make good business sense? It sure does.
Q. How do you persuade businesses to hire disabled individuals?
A. What we do is walk in there with a presentation that shows them how it will positively affect their bottom line. For instance, [we show them] a targeted job tax credit where you can write off up to $2,400 of the first year's salary of an individual that's certified. If you have to make an adaptation to your building for either your employees or your customers, here's how you do it. Here are the vendors that we would suggest you use and here's how you access your $15,000 tax write-off. There are some other incentives. For instance, suppose you hire someone who has had data-processing experience but is completely lost in your system. You put them through an in-house training program, you're upgrading them. The employer then qualifies for up to 50 percent reimbursement.
Q. Are there jobs available for disabled workers -- employment they can count on for as a career?
A. People with disabilities feel just the same way about jobs as people without disabilities. And if there's upward mobility, if there's a challenge there, that's what we want to provide.
Q. Is this a program for small businesses or major corporations?
A. This is a program for any Maryland business, whether it be a mom-and-pop pizza shop, whether it be a home operation, or whether it be a mega-corporation.