GLOVERSVILLE - For four decades, the sheltered workshop at Lexington Center provided employment for disabled adults, allowing them to earn a paycheck for basic assembly-line and packaging work in a supervised, safe environment.
Lexington, the Fulton County chapter of ARC, closed its North Perry Street workshop Oct. 1. Since then, the agency has expanded the scope of its supported-employment program, creating new opportunities for disabled individuals to find work in the community.
Many of the roughly 200 people who had been employed in the workshop have found jobs outside the agency, according to Ashley Walton, Lexington's program manager of employment opportunities.
Lexington Mobile Work Crew No. 2 member George Swan wipes down a desk Thursday in the reception area at the School House Companies and Universal Warehousing complex on Patch Road in Mayfield, one of many area business that contract with Lexington for janitorial services. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
Walton said Lexington has excellent relationships with many businesses in the community. In most cases, she said, the only thing stopping a person from finding gainful employment is not a disability but the economy.
"Generally, our community is very welcoming to our services and our supports," she said. "I think we struggle with the same struggles that any job seeker faces. There's not a lot of jobs in our area; that's the main thing. It's not that the people in our program have a disability, it's that there's a lot of people out there vying for the same job now."
Walton said Lexington doesn't ask employers to make major compromises or go too far out of their way to create job opportunities.
"We really try to match the people we work with to the job," she said. "We certainly don't want employers to change up the job description, but they sometimes make reasonable accommodations for the abilities of the workers."
Wally Hart, Lexington's director of business and community development, said the Holiday Inn in Johnstown recently hired a hearing-impaired individual placed through Lexington. The hotel management made some adjustments to help make the hiring a win-win, Hart said.
"The [Lexington] staff is incredibly in tune to the market and to the ability of the people we're trying to find positions for," Hart said. "They provide support not only for the individual but for the business, so everybody is successful all the way around."
Some people in Lexington's supported-employment program already have a relationship with the agency through one or more of its other programs. Others are referred to the program from agencies such as the vocational rehabilitation division of the state Education Department.
"We work with a very, very wide range of individuals," Walton said. "They could have ... mental health disabilities, physical disabilities, developmental disabilities. We work with all sorts of people."
When a job-seeker enters the program, Walton said, the person is assisted by a job developer who assesses the individual and tries to find him or her a job.
"When they come into our program, we look very closely at their individual needs," she said.
Some individuals will "graduate" from the program and work independently as soon as they are placed in jobs, while others will work under the guidance of a job coach.
The job coach will go to the work site and help train the individual, helping him or her learn to meet the expectations of the employer.
"The coaching usually starts out pretty intensive," Walton said. "As the person becomes more comfortable, we're able to back that service off, so the person is more independent ... and we're just visiting a couple of times per month. The goal is really to help the person become as independent on the job as possible."
To assist individuals who are not ready or able to work independently, Lexington has created and expanded its own in-house businesses, including two mobile work crews that do janitorial work under Lexington supervision. One of the crews works under contract, doing office cleaning at local businesses such as Ruby & Quiri in Johnstown, Amico Funeral Home in Gloversville and several others.
A second mobile work crew was created in June and does all the carpet and floor cleaning at about 60 Lexington-run homes, and it cleans floors at the Universal Warehousing offices on Patch Road in Mayfield. The six individuals on that crew each work about three days per week under Marianne Metacarpa, who drives them to and from work sites and supervises them.
Crew members John Failing, Jamie Crawford and George Swan spoke with The Leader-Herald this week about their experiences on the job. They all had worked in sheltered workshops before the crew was created in June.
Swan, who lives in Johnstown, said he's worked independently in the past, but he enjoys his job on the Lexington crew.
"We buff floors, shampoo rugs, clean bathrooms, mirrors, mop, sweep, wipe off tables, clean toilets, everything," he said. "I don't find it hard. Once Marianne tells me what to do, I do it, and it's done. I like the job, though. I like it a lot."
Failing, a Gloversville resident, said his biggest challenge was learning to operate a floor buffer machine.
"It ain't too bad, though, once you get the hang of it," he said.
Swan, Failing and Crawford said they like working together and take pride in doing their jobs well.
"This is a good bunch," Metacarpa said. "They get along so well, and they help each other."
While some ARC organizations are allowed to pay sheltered workers less than minimum wage, all the people employed through Lexington earn at least minimum wage.
Because of the success of the mobile work crews and to meet the apparent demand, Lexington is now developing a third cleaning crew that will be available for community contracts.
It also has created a team of workers who do paper-shredding and document scanning, which started as an in-house operation to meet Lexington's own office needs but now is available for contracts with outside companies.
"It's a work in progress," Walton said of the program. "We're continually trying to find employment opportunities for the individuals we serve."
Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.