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Slow business drives retarded adults from jobs in mainstream

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Clyde Nichols sits at a long table in a workshop for the mentally disabled, bundling little plastic tags into groups of six.

The work is monotonous and he doesn't like it much. But since he was laid off from an Annapolis hardware store last fall, he hasn't had any better offers.

"I was doing a good job. They laid me off because there wasn't enough work to do," said Mr. Nichols, 50, who lives in a group home for mentally retarded adults in Annapolis. "It made me feel terrible."

Like Mr. Nichols, dozens of mentally impaired adults in the region have lost jobs in the community or had their hours sharply reduced due to the slow economy and corporate staff cuts. Many have had to return to sheltered workshops, companies set up for them to do piecework making an average of $15 to $30 a week.

Job counselors at agencies serving the mentally impaired have seen many of the low-skill jobs that were opportunities for their clients disappear or get merged into positions they don't qualify for.

In some cases, they have been snatched up by high school and college students who three years ago "would have snubbed their noses at these minimum-wage jobs," said M. Joseph Sebian, chief of supported employment for the Baltimore Association of Retarded Citizens.

Fast food jobs, once a reliable source of employment for the mentally disabled, have dried up in many places, counselors said.

"Go into a fast food restaurant, and you see retired people working these jobs because they can't live off Social Security anymore," said Vicki Callahan, executive director of Opportunity Builders in Hanover. "There's a much bigger pool of people competing for these same jobs," she said.

"We've had to branch out into new companies, get more creative, more aggressive," said Mr. Sebian, who estimated that 60 to 70 of his association's clients are out of work.

The agency has increased its placement staff to help combat the impact of the recession, as well as keep up with a growing client population.

Unlike many out-of-work Americans scrambling for jobs, dozens of mentally impaired adults who don't have job-hunting skills are biding their time at home or back at the sheltered workshops while job counselors search to find them new jobs.

They are the forgotten segment of the work force, counselors said.

"Most people don't think our clients are employable," said Jake Fraley, a job developer at Providence Employment Services in Anne Arundel County, where Mr. Nichols is a client. "They're not going to worry about them getting laid off."

Bridget Fitzhenry, 33 and mentally retarded, lost her job at a Fair Lanes Bowling Center in Glen Burnie six months ago. She now collates fliers at Baldwin Industries, a sheltered workshop in Arnold.

She used to make $100 a week at the bowling center, but now makes $40 to $60 a week, a big disappointment because she was saving for her wedding in August.

"We're having a big wedding. All my cousins are coming," said Ms.Fitzhenry, showing off her diamond engagement ring. "That costs a lot."

Job counselors said clients who have been laid off see going back to the workshops as personal failure.

"It's really devastating for many of our people, who have been out in the community working, to suddenly not have a job," said Jean Kearny, a job developer for Providence Employment zTC Services.

It is most disheartening, said Mr. Fraley, to see clients who made tremendous progress in the community lose their new skills.

"If they are around higher functioning people, they improve a lot," he said. "We've seen people who were doing great in the community for two years, regress in just a couple months back in the workshop. They start slamming doors, screaming, acting like little children."

With so much at stake, counselors said getting their clients back to work quickly is imperative. But it has not been easy.

"Last year at this time, we were placing 16 clients a month," said Ms. Kearney. "Last month, we placed two." Over the past year, 28 of the agency's clients were laid off, and many more had their hours cut.

Reliable workers

Counselors stress that their clients are reliable workers, who miss few days, are punctual and strive to do a good job. They also are willing to do menial or repetitive tasks that others may not find challenging.

At Morrison's Cafeteria in Pasadena, 35-year-old Ria Marinucci of Arnold rolls silverware in napkins three hours a day, three days a week. She loves her work, she said, and never gets bored.

"It's something that I enjoy doing," said Ms. Marinucci. "I have to keep up with my pace. I'm trying to move a little bit faster," she said.

"What she does is not an easy job," said Robin Creasey, an associate manager. "We serve at least 800 people a day and everyone who comes through picks up silverware."

Across Route 2 at BJ's Wholesale Club, 40-year-old Karen Becker of Severna Park is busy pushing Famous Amos Chocolate Chip-Pecan Cookies. Since she started last November, she has gotten two raises and been promoted to "food demonstrator" for her excellent work.

On a recent Monday, her goal was to sell 18 jumbo-sized boxes of cookies. It would be tough, she said, but she was up to it.

"She's a great person. She eats with us, takes breaks with us. She's one of the gang. And she meets her goal no matter what," said Vickie O'Bara, another food demonstrator.

Even at businesses where mentally impaired employees have been let go, managers say the workers were doing a good job.

"We had [a client] here making salads in the morning," said Cindy McGrath, as assistant Manager at Pizza Hut in Pasadena. "He was a good worker. But business slowed down and we had to lay off some people."

Pamela Ledsome, director of Vocational Rehabilitation Services for the Chimes in Baltimore, said her biggest problem in finding new jobs is getting companies to consider disabled workers. Once they do, employers are generally satisfied, she said.

New opportunities

Some heroes have emerged despite the recession, providing new opportunities for clients.

Henry Pollock, executive director of Developmental Services Group Inc. in Howard County, said his agency -- which provides vocational services for the disabled -- lost 15 to 20 jobs last spring. But since then, a few businesses, particularly Taco Bell and Danaher Tool Group in Hanover, have provided new jobs.

Mr. Sebian said Blockbuster Video and Basics Food Warehouse have helped with many of their clients, hiring two dozen employees between them.

And the Chimes, which trains and places mentally impaired and disabled adults, found 24 jobs since January, said Ms. Ledsome, 14 of them with ARA, a food vendor at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"That was a big morale boost," she said. "We have 14 of our people working every home game in the concession and kitchen areas."

Although staff members feel great about recent successes, they say keeping their clients on the job is a constant struggle.

"You have to be out there looking every day. We go out there and pursue these jobs. They don't come to us," Ms. Ledsome said. "We worked on that ARA placement from January to April."

Counselors know many clients await an opportunity to prove themselves.

"We have at least 15 people sitting in workshops right now who don't need to be there," said Ms. Kearney. "Our main goal is to get them out in the community."

Taking a break from the plastic tags piled high all around him, Mr. Nichols talked about the kind of job he'd like.

"What I'd really like is a job at McDonald's. I could wait on the customers or cook the food," he said. "Or I could work at Giant, loading cars. I'm a good worker."

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