Employing All Abilities
Even with the heightened focus on diversity and inclusion, there’s still a group largely forgotten in the conversation about workplace equality: people with disabilities.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for people with a disability in 2020 was 12.6 percent, an increase of 5.3 percentage points from 2019—much higher than the 2020 unemployment rate of 7.9 percent for people without disabilities. (Unemployed persons are those who did not have a job, were available for work, and were actively looking for a job in the four weeks preceding the survey.)
This disparity is the reason Nicole Rabinowitz founded Inclusive Networking in Minneapolis two years ago. She works with job seekers with disabilities to help them find employment, and she supports businesses that seek to become inclusive employers, hiring individuals with disabilities alongside employees without disabilities. Rabinowitz gets to know the job seekers—their talents, interests, and challenges; she does the same for participating businesses, learning about their culture, operations, and needs. Then she matches job seekers and employers and provides on-the-job training.
Minneapolis-based startup snack brand Isadore Nut Co. is a partner of Inclusive Networking. Founder and CEO Tasya Kelen says there are the “feel-good” benefits to being an inclusive employer: seeing people who’ve faced significant barriers to employment thrive personally and professionally in their jobs, like production assistant Trent Pleasant. “I’m starting to speak with more confidence than I was just two years ago,” he says, “and I’ve also learned how to advocate for myself.”
Production assistant Kayla Corpron found her first job at Isadore, and she’s already a great leader for other employees, Kelen says. “I like to be responsible,” says Corpron, “and Tasya entrusts me with helping others.”
But inclusive employment isn’t just good for the employees or the soul, says Kelen. Hiring people with differing abilities is also good for business.
Case in point: Isadore Nut Co. is currently working on a redesign of its brand and packaging this year, and one focus is to make its packaging easier to open, fill, and seal for its employees with dexterity issues—an improvement for all customers, Kelen says.
“Everyone benefits when they’re working with more diversity, and there’s greater workplace productivity,” says Rabinowitz. “It’s interesting because a lot of the supports, accommodations, or modifications that some employees benefit from actually end up benefiting the whole company’s workplace productivity.”
According to public policy nonprofit CEO Commission for Disability Employment, a common misconception about hiring people with disabilities is that they are only short-time employees who need extensive supervision when, in reality, hiring employees with disabilities can actually increase employee retention by 90 percent and reduce training and hiring costs.
Humble Nut Butter, another local food startup, has seen this to be true, says its co-founder Jess Waller. The company hired senior production assistant Tim Strom in 2019, and he has remained in his position far longer than average for similar positions in the company.
“There are so many benefits of having employees who feel how valued they are,” Kelen says. “It translates into employees who are dedicated to their employers—and who do things like show up on time, contact you ahead of time if they have an issue, and are really engaged in their work.” Many of Kelen’s former temporary employees—she requires additional help around the holidays—contact her regularly to check in with the company and see if there’s any work ready for them.
“Being an inclusive employer is one of those things that speaks a lot to the ethics of a company and its founders.” —Jess Waller, co-founder of Humble Nut Butter
The Wallers have seen that same kind of dedication from Strom, who has risen through the ranks since starting with the company several years ago. “He’s always eager to get to work and tackle any task we give him,” says co-founder John Waller.
Becoming an inclusive employer is also good for revenue.
According to a 2018 report by the American Institutes for Research, the total after-tax disposable income for working-age people with disabilities is about $490 billion, similar to other significant market segments including African Americans, at $501 billion, and Hispanic Americans, at $582 billion.
“That’s a lot of spending power and customer base,” says Rabinowitz. “And I would say that most people, even those without disabilities, would prefer to buy products and support companies that are inclusive to hiring people with disabilities.”
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Half of Isadore Nut Co.’s employees live with a disability. Since the company began sharing that fact on its packaging and talking about the team on its website and social media, Kelen says sales have increased 50 percent. The company’s package redesign, which Kelen hopes to launch by the end of the summer, will share even more about its inclusive employment practices.
Not just for small business
While small businesses often offer a simpler entry point for workers with disabilities, big corporations and companies are starting to notice the benefits too.
Golden Valley-based financial services provider Allianz Life founded an employee resource group last year called AIIABLE (Allianz for Abilities Beyond Limitations and Expectations). The group works to develop a more inclusive physical work environment, form professional relationships that encourage individual development, and identify ways to better connect with customers with disabilities. Allianz chief HR officer Jenny Guldseth says the company also works with Eagan nonprofit Lifeworks Services to employ individuals with disabilities. Currently, the company employs one full-time employee, four part-time employees, and five part-time contractors through its partnership with Lifeworks.
“You don’t need to revamp your business model to become an inclusive employer,” says John Waller. “It’s about finding time and dedicating support for these individuals; but once you train them, they get ramped up and are embedded into the culture in a way that creates lasting, meaningful work.”
The Wallers are working for the day when the term “inclusive employment” becomes outdated.
“Being an inclusive employer is one of those things that speaks a lot to the ethics of a company and its founders to put their money where their mouth is,” says Jess Waller. “This is the way of the future.”