During his job interview, when the Air Force asked Joe Lininger why he wanted to work there, his answer was simple.
“When I was young I wanted to join the military, but I couldn’t because I have a disability,” said Lininger. “When they offered to hire me as a civilian, it was like the next best thing.
“If I can’t serve in the military, I can at least work in a civilian capacity.”
Lininger, 33 and blind since birth, was a UCCS senior studying computer science when the Air Force Space Command hired him as an intern. He later graduated and moved on to the Palace Acquire program at Peterson Air Force Base.
The three-year PA program is designed for persons who want to further their education; it pays for three semesters of college. Lininger is taking coursework toward his Ph.D.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s office of Disability Employment Policy, the percentage of people with disabilities who have jobs and work is 19.5 percent.
That number compares with 68.7 percent for workers who do not have a disability.
The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than double that of people without disabilities — 12.7 percent to 5.8 percent.
The Air Force made special accommodations for Lininger’s blindness.
“Obviously I can’t read a computer screen. I have a piece of software that basically talks. It allows me to use a computer by listening to voice prompts and then using the keyboard,” Lininger said.
When he requested the software, Space Command worked swiftly to obtain it.
“They said, ‘What do you need?’ and bought the exact software,” Lininger said.
Once Lininger graduates from the PA program, “I feel fully confident that Air Force Space Command will keep him on,” said Dr. Michele Gaudreault, Lininger’s supervisor.
“With the experience he’s gaining, he’ll be a valuable asset to the government, and I can’t see the government letting industry take him away from us,” Gaudreault said.
In 1939, the federal government passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, implementing the minimum wage. It also took into account people with disabilities struggling to work and to find work.
The federal law allowed employers to obtain an exemption to the minimum wage for hiring people with severe disabilities. That opened the door. The exemption is called 14(c); that’s the segment of the legislation that allows employers to apply to opt out of paying minimum wage.
In recent years, there has been an effort in Congress to repeal that section. In addition to U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, 89 U.S. representatives cosponsored the House bill last year. It failed to reach the floor for a vote.
Part of the executive order President Obama signed earlier this year raises the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for persons on federal contracts.
In Colorado Springs, Discover Goodwill operates a commercial laundry, a commercial janitorial service and a document imaging service.
Those businesses employ people with cognitive or physical disabilities.
The conditions include cerebral palsy, Asperger Syndrome, autism, Down Syndrome, traumatic brain injuries and more, said Bradd Hafer, Goodwill assistant director of marketing and communications.
One of the larger contracts involves people with disabilities providing janitorial services for the Air Force Academy dorms.
Other laundry and custodial contracts include Colorado Springs Utilities, Buckley Air Force Base, Evans Army Hospital, Schriever Air Force Base, Fort Carson Post and Peterson Air Force Base.
The total of these contracts amounts to approximately $7 million annually, said Hafer.
“Discover Goodwill still subsidizes these job training programs to cover uncompensated administrative and support expenses. Last year’s subsidy totaled over $250,000,” Hafer said.
“The more contracts we get, the more we’re able to put these people to work, people who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to enter into the workforce. We intentionally look for those individuals for those opportunities.”
Nationally, Goodwill has been lambasted for its taking advantage of the 14(c) legislation. “Our take on that is that it’s an invaluable training tool for people with disabilities,” Hafer said.
Not all the Colorado Springs Discover Goodwill employees have a disability. Of those who do, not all have had the minimum wage exemption.
In Colorado Springs, Goodwill employs 1,200 individuals. Of those, 38 percent have a reported disability, Hafer said.
Of those with a reported disability, 229 work under the contracts, and of those, 112 are eligible to work for less than minimum wage under the 14(c) exemption, he said.
“Currently 32 of those 112 … are making below minimum wage and they are utilizing the special wage certificate provision,” Hafer said.
Those employees have case workers who help them at work, he added. Also, the employees are guaranteed rides to and from work, and they get paid health insurance.
Case management, health insurance and transportation together amount to $3.81 per hour, Hafer said. Prevailing wage for custodians is $12 an hour and, for the laundry, $8.81 to $11.47 an hour.
Based on information from Goodwill agencies nationally provided by Hafer, “We estimate that 8,000 of Goodwill’s collective 121,000 team members are paid” using the exemption certificate. These people have “severe or significant disabilities … who otherwise might not be a part of the workforce.”
At the Fresh Start laundry, work involves sorting laundry, sending it to the industrial washers and dryers, sending it through industrial folders, and hand-folding some of the laundry. The laundry then must be packaged to send back to the clients.
Toma Krouse has worked four years for Discover Goodwill in its laundry business, Fresh Start.
Krouse started working at Fresh Start for $4.20 an hour, and every six months, “I moved up,” said the young woman with developmental disabilities. “I learned how to work the machines. I learned how to listen and ask questions.” Krouse said she is now making $9 hourly.
“Case management is the key,” Hafer said. “We’re there to bring them up to speed. We’re never going to leave their side.”
“A lot of these people can get a job, but keeping a job can be a challenge,” said Joe Cunningham, business development director for Discover Goodwill.
Case managers monitor the employee’s behavior when physicians change his or her medications.
“We really focus on what’s going on in their life situation,” Cunningham said.
Josue Nieves-Barreto came to Goodwill via Widefield School District 3’s special education program. At Fresh Start, Nieves-Barreto hand-folds laundry. He was named employee of the year in 2010, and he said the only job he would leave Goodwill for would be if he were chosen for American Idol.
On federal disability benefits, Jenny Cheeseman said she worked at Goodwill helping people in wheelchairs.
“I help push them and feed them and participate with them — bingo and activities,” Cheeseman said. “I like meeting new friends. It gives me more social skills.”
Colorado Springs resident Kevan Worley was once voted out of a job for which he was eminently qualified. He had earned his degree from Texas Tech and worked in radio in small towns in Texas.
“I would get hired by my résumé, but when I showed up in person, they would say, ‘Whoa! I didn’t know you were blind!’”
In 1985, he took his mellifluous voice to a small town in Texas. Worley got hired, but when he showed up to work his first day, the station manager told him to return the next day after learning of Worley’s blindness. The station manager asked the employees to vote, whether they wanted him to work there or not.
He didn’t get the job.
“How do you run an establishment where the employees vote, and really? Your employees have that kind of prejudice? YOU have that kind of prejudice?” Worley asked.
For 22 years, Worley has owned and operated a business consulting on government contracts, Worley Enterprises. WE also contracts with the federal government on food service and custodial services; it employs more than 100 people across the nation.
The notion that someone with disabilities brings baggage because of their disability “is just ridiculous,” Worley said. “Able-bodied people have challenges: Their husband beats them; their kids are sick; they get the flu.”
Three of four blind individuals do not work, he said.
He called for equality of employment opportunity. He decried the current circumstances that the 1939 law created.
“That was a good idea then, but is it really, in 2014?” Worley asked. “My point to Goodwill has been and always will be — If you want to keep faith with the people you are charged to serve, don’t exploit them.
“What they’re doing is unfair, unjust. It’s just wrong.”
Worley says he was told 93 people work at the Colorado Springs Discover Goodwill for less than minimum wage. He decried the sub-minimum wages when the president and CEO of the local organization makes “over $300,000. You’re making over $300,000 and you can’t afford to pay these 93 people who work for you at least $8 an hour? At least?” he asked. “Especially since a lot of these employees are not full-time; they’re 18, 20, 25 hours a week.”
According to figures submitted to the Internal Revenue Service, the president and CEO makes $293,528 including retirement and benefits.
Years ago, when he worked as a program manager for an area disabled service provider, Bill Morris discovered persons with autism have an innate ability to break down electronic components and small appliances. After researching the topic, Morris discovered people with autism “have a real proclivity for procedural, tactile, repetitive activities.”
To his then-employer, he made a proposal that involved giving jobs to people with autism; the jobs would involve disassembling electronics.
“The place I worked for didn’t even open my proposal,” said Morris. Morris took his idea and created Blue Star Recyclers; now he serves as its CEO and president. Blue Star employs around 10 people with autism to disassemble computers, used cell phones and other electronics.
When it started in 2010, the company recycled 600,000 pounds. This year, the group will recycle 2.1 million pounds of electronics.
“The cool thing is I can hire a new person for every 7,000 pounds a month,” Morris said. His business solves a large problem: People with autism have an unemployment rate of more than 90 percent.
“They’re about the best workers we could find,” he said.
“After five and a half years with this group, we’ve had zero turnover, zero absenteeism and zero accidents,” Morris said. “They’re off-the-charts phenomenal employees.”
Employees with disabilities become taxpayers and consumers.
By hiring people with disabilities, taxpayers get “a massive savings” of about $15,000 per person, because caseworkers and service providers don’t need to be hired at $7 to $10 an hour, Morris said.
Blue Star Recyclers is now planning to expand and grow into Denver, he said.
With 14 employees with autism, Morris calculates the business is saving the U.S. taxpayers $210,000 a year, he said.
Also, one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism in the U.S., Morris said, quoting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Autism Society reported that 50,000 people with autism turn 18 every month, and 80 percent are unemployed.
“With that high unemployment, they will bankrupt the [Social Security Disability] system. We’ve got to get them employed,” Morris said. nCSBJ