Getting most from her team
A quiet air of concentration settles over the workshop at Labor Solutions, 2850 Chipeta Ave.
From his wheelchair Paul Baldwin is sorting and pushing lids off a tray into a chute to box them up. Tanya Fishback is counting out rubber rings, a dozen at a time, that also will be added to the boxes.
The program, which hires developmentally disabled workers through Mesa Developmental Services to perform tasks for pay, a few years ago attracted about six workers. Today, 25 workers fill orders for packaging products and shred documents for local companies.
“There’s a lot of conflicting personalities, but they all genuinely care about each other,” said Peggy Gordon, a vocational direct-support professional who organizes operations.
This week, Direct Support Professionals Recognition Week, is dedicated to people such as Gordon. The worker of four years was recognized as direct-support-service professional of the month for MDS and was nominated for state recognition.
“You wake up, and you’re ready to come to work,” Gordon said. “We get to grow with them. It expands them and us and everybody. It’s not a job.”
Gordon has the right mix of energy, creativity and commitment to keep the clients happy and productive, Labor Solutions Director John Klausz said.
“I think everybody in the workshop feeds off Peggy’s energy,” he said. “There are so many responsibilities. You won’t look around and see people with behavioral challenges, because they’re working.”
Gordon works with people of all abilities, but she created ways for each person to reach their own level of success. Clients in the woodworking program create boards with pegs to help workers count out rings. Some clients choose to box up lids. Others work on shredding documents. Clients start the day making T-shirts to sell to tourists and lately have been stuffing bags to make presents for an appreciation day for staff members. They also have been busy creating art, which they plan to sell at an upcoming art fair.
“They all work hard,” Gordon said. “It’s nice to have them show off a little.”
Gordon and her peers work hard, too, but their profession often goes unnoticed. It’s a career path projected to need an abundance of workers in coming years, according to the American Network of Community Options and Resources, an advocacy group for people with disabilities.
In nine years, the group estimates 323,000 jobs will be required nationwide to help support people with mental and developmental disabilities. Turnover rates in the private industry are high, approximately 38 percent, compared with about a 15 percent turnover rate among their state-employed counterparts. A shortage of workers could be attributed to lower wages paid by private companies. The average wage paid by a private employer for a direct-support-service professional is $10.14 an hour, compared to $15.53 for state employees who perform the same work, according to a 2009 study, ANCOR reported.
Finding workers is not the difficult part, Klausz said. It’s finding people with the creative energy, compassion and a mind for being practical.
“Some days are going to be a little rough,” he said. “It’s not just supporting them, but helping them be more productive and helping them working toward a life path that’s more independent.”