DETROIT — When COVID-19 hit Michigan, one segment of the workforce was hit especially hard: people with developmental disabilities.

Employment advocates in Michigan and across the country are working to overcome challenges amid the pandemic to keep their clients engaged in training and employed. They’re balancing the availability of jobs with the safety of their clients and the comfort levels of their families.

“In February and March, the COVID pandemic really knocked the legs from underneath us,” said Brent Mikulski, president and CEO of Dearborn Heights-based Services to Enhance Potential, a nonprofit that offers training to people with developmental disabilities and connects them with internships and jobs. “We had businesses that were sincere in their interest in working to hire individuals. We were in the process of placing somebody there. They were forced to shut and lay off staff, shutter staff that used to be working. Our folks were part of that layoff.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Mikulski said of the 200 individuals STEP placed in jobs last year, about 20 clients kept their jobs during the government-ordered shutdown of nonessential businesses.

Despite the job losses, STEP says it’s placed clients in jobs at 14 different companies since March including fast food, packaging, environmental services and customer service. It’s been a slow return to work, but there’s progress, Mikulski said.

“We’ve shifted what they’re interested in, qualified for,” he said. “It’s picking up. As businesses continue to look for staff I think we’re going to be in a good position to help those folks.”

Statistically, people with developmental disabilities have had a tougher time finding employment. Prior to the pandemic in Michigan, 81% of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities were unemployed, compared to 9% of individuals without disabilities, according to statistics released by Michigan Developmental Disabilities Network in 2014.

Concerns about training and employment for individuals with developmental disabilities amid the pandemic exist across the country, said Donna Meltzer, CEO of nonprofit National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities.

One fear is that with millions of Americans out of work due to the pandemic, people with disabilities may be the last group of people to find jobs, she said.

“It may take years for our employment infrastructure to rebound,” she said. “Jobs will be scarce and many who had jobs may find that job is no longer open to them. Education that leads to work is also greatly impacted and a cohort of students who were moving forward from school to work or on to higher ed may lose those opportunities permanently. Until there is a vaccine, many will not feel safe navigating the community and choose instead to stay home — our challenge is to find ways to balance safety, health and community.”

Another challenge Meltzer said organizations are working through is students impacted by the lack of technology to learn remotely.

Employment decreases vulnerability because it reduces food insecurity and increases the likelihood of access to health insurance and health care, said Erin Riehle, director of Project Search, a Cincinnati-based school-to-work program for people with disabilities with an international network including roughly 20 program sites in Michigan.

Riehle says employers, including hospitals, retirement communities and grocery stores are provided safety training and equipment to pass on to employees. Employers can provide more suitable equipment for employees with medical vulnerabilities and possibly change the location of their employee’s work assignment if needed, Riehle said.

“There’s many accommodations that can be put in place in the workplace, which ultimately may keep you more active and less vulnerable,” she said.

Jobs and self-worth

Clients of STEP are placed in work that pays at least minimum wage or whatever the starting pay is for the participating employer, said Mikulski. Those returning to work have resumed schedules of 15-20 hours a week.

One worker who has maintained employment is STEP client, Laquita Parker of Detroit. Parker, 46, transitioned from an internship with StoneCrest Center in Detroit to her first permanent job there as a dietary aide. Her responsibilities at the in-patient mental treatment center include preparing beverages and plating desserts and salads for the patients.

“I like the atmosphere,” she said. “I like the people there. I like the work that I do at StoneCrest.”

Parker is among five dietary aides working at StoneCrest after internships through STEP.

“It’s working well with them,” said Bryan Henderson, food service director at StoneCrest. “There was a time when we lost a lot of people during COVID and before that we were working shorthand. Our STEP people really were the backbone for us and kept us in the game.”

While Parker has been able to keep her job, others are looking for a new ones.

Peter Yezback, a STEP client, said he hopes to return to work soon. The 65-year-old Livonia resident lost his job collecting trash in the halls at Fox Run retirement community earlier this year when the pandemic hit.

Yezback said he wants to work as a dishwasher at a restaurant near his house in the mornings. He said he feels good when he works and he likes to “keep my hands going.”

Yezback’s sister, Joan Yezback, said work has been fulfilling for her brother.

“He feels so much better about himself,” she said.

Peter Yezback has started to return to STEP classes for in-person training. His classes in previous weeks were held via Zoom.

“I just think it’s so important for him to get out although it’s kind of scary,” Joan Yezback said. “But still, you gotta do it.”

Health concerns

Kelly Rockwell, co-founder and president of nonprofit Mi Work Matters, said there’s a waiting list of people wanting to work at the organization’s Anastasia and Katie’s Coffee Shop in Livonia, staffed by people with developmental disabilities.

Late last year Anastasia and Katie’s Coffee Shop and Café opened with much fanfare and business was really good, Rockwell said. Then COVID-19 came to Michigan. The café shop technically didn’t have to close its doors because it served food, but the organization needed time to regroup, Rockwell said.

“It’s constantly shifting ground,” she said. “That’s how it feels.”

There were eight employees with developmental disabilities working at the coffee shop before the closure, Rockwell said. Four returned and there was one new hire. The others plan to return when they feel comfortable, given there is space.

A hesitancy in returning to the workforce stem from some with developmental disabilities with underlying medical conditions, Rockwell said. There are also family members to consider.

“And a lot of our employees either live with their family and they depend on their family for transportation or they have direct caregivers,” she said. “Their family members could be older or have high-risk situations where they don’t want to be out and about. It’s a family decision.”

For those choosing not to work due to the pandemic, the emotional and social impact is devastating, Rockwell said.

“They feel conflicted because they want to come back to work, but their comfort level for safety isn’t there,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking really, because the social-isolation piece is a huge concern. Everybody is getting a taste of that now. We’re all much more socially isolated now and it’s not a great feeling.”

Diversity awareness

Meltzer said employment advocates are using this time to work on programs, policies and plan for the future.

“While the workplace may not be fully open right now, we continue to push for policies at the state level around Employment First which means the state legislature is making a commitment to employment and stating that meaningful employment is the preferred outcome for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” she said. “They continue to fight for fair pay for people with disabilities and funding for job development and expansion.”

Rockwell said the employment landscape in Michigan was heading in the right direction pre-pandemic and she hopes it will continue that way.

“I think that there’s been more awareness over the past few months of the diversity in the workplace,” she said. “I would hope that that momentum will continue once people are back to work and have more social contact. I look at it as temporary.”

© 2020 The Detroit News
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC