On a recent weekday after Valentine’s Day, Tammi Graves slipped on black rain pants over her jeans in the back room of Albertsons grocery ahead of a four-hour shift at the Salmon Creek location.
The rain pants are in case she has to go outside to haul in carts. It’s not her favorite task.
“That’s my least favorite thing to do. I don’t like going out in the rain because it’s cold,” Graves said.
That particular morning, around 11 a.m., the sun was peeking through the sky and Graves was assigned to her preferred activity: bagging groceries. It’s slightly less lonely than corralling carts.
“I’d say my favorite part is bagging groceries and helping people out to their car with the carry-out,” she said. “I love talking to people. I talk a lot. I’m a talker. I never shut up. Ask Olivia.”
Olivia VanNatta is Graves’ employment consultant — or job coach. She works for Trillium Employment Services, a nonprofit that helps connect people with developmental or intellectual disabilities with a job. Graves, who has trouble with comprehension and reading, is approaching her 20th anniversary on the job at Albertsons. VanNatta, 26, has 12 clients in addition to Graves, 45, who she’s been working with for a year and a half.
“I have a hard time understanding what I read. It’s comprehension,” Graves said. “When I took my driver’s test a while back, I couldn’t understand it. I had to have my dad or somebody read it to me. I can’t understand it when I read it myself.”
Trillium receives money directly from Clark County, which uses funding from the state Department of Social and Health Services and the developmental disability program to help people with disabilities find and keep jobs.
Employment for people with disabilities and their working conditions is an issue with a layered history. It used to be that disabled workers were confined to working in segregated areas called “sheltered workshops” that often paid below minimum wage.
According to Mary Strehlow, manager at the Clark County Developmental Disabilities program, the last sheltered workshops in Washington will close next month; the nation has moved away from the practice in favor of individual support. The last sheltered workshop in Clark County, Vantech, closed in 2006, according to Columbian archives.
Trillium’s Program Manager Wendy Taliaferro wants businesses to know that people with disabilities have value.
“There’s a lot of re-education that needs to happen. Someone may have an idea but it’s from a past antiquated system,” she said, adding that they work with employers to figure out the best position for a person. “We’re talking about a real job with real money, not piece rate, not subsidized; it’s minimum wage and above.”
Mary Strehlow has been working in the county program since 1988 and has observed improvement, but said that there’s still more work to do to boost numbers. She said that employing people with disabilities saves taxpayers between $7,800 and $19,000 per person per year
“I think this is an untapped workforce. This is a group of people that generally want to work … some businesses have figured that out and are supportive,” Strehlow said.
By the numbers
There are 131 employers that work with the Clark County Developmental Disabilities program. According to national prevalence data used by the county, there are 8,478 children and adults with developmental disabilities who live in Clark County and 424 people participating in the program. Fifty-eight percent of those people are employed, meaning slightly less than 200 people are looking for work. Seven agencies like Trillium contract with the county, which receives slightly more than $4 million per year for disability services.
Source: Patricia McConaughy and Wendy Taliaferro, with Clark County Developmental Disabilities program.
Albertsons Salmon Creek
14300 N.E. 20th Ave.
Tammi Graves receives the same wage as the rest of the store’s courtesy clerks, topped off at minimum wage, which was raised to $12 an hour last month.
Trillium Employment Services
2800 E. Evergreen Blvd.
Serves 94 people with disabilities in Clark County and 46 of them are employed.
The individual support that is now common practice works out well for Graves.
Although her disability doesn’t have a major impact her job at Albertsons, she said, she has VanNatta there to help with any issues.
“I’ve never noticed that (my job) has been affected. The only time it’s been affected is when … if I take a test on the computer, I have a hard time reading it,” she said. A while back, corporate mandated shoplifting training.
“I have to have someone read it to me because I have a hard time understanding what’s going on,” Graves said. At another point, she had a different boss who wanted her to work a bit faster.
“I had a former boss who wanted things done really fast and quick,” she said, smacking her hands together to indicate speed. “With me, I have two speeds. Slow and slower.”
VanNatta checks in weekly to make sure things are going well and intervene with techniques to help Graves succeed, like making organized lists of tasks for Graves to follow.
“I probably check in with Connie (Crippen, Graves’ manager), twice a month and while checking in with Tammi, I’ll check in with other co-workers and see how she’s doing, if there’s any feedback and what she can improve on,” VanNatta said. Sick with a cold and leaving for a vacation to Mexico the next morning, VanNatta wasn’t at the store for a check-in, but wanted to be there with Graves while she was interviewed for this story.
“Olivia tries to help me do better so that Connie feels better about something she wanted me to do better at,” Graves said, laughing but noting seriously that she needs to “improve on not talking so much.”
According to Crippen, Albertsons has had a relationship with a supportive employment agency for at least 25 years. The Salmon Creek location has two supported employees. Danny Alder, who has been there since the store opened, has “more limitations” than Graves, including memory issues, Crippen said.
“People ask for them by name, and they do a good job,” Crippen said. “(Graves) wants to make sure she’s doing a good job.”
Graves, who makes $12.60 an hour at Albertsons, Crippen said, works up to three days a week and generally the 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift. She can’t work later hours because her mother, who is 70, has Alzheimer’s and needs around-the-clock care at their Ridgefield home with the help of her father, a retired school counselor.
“I said I can’t (work the night shift) because of my mom. Because my dad says the hardest time he has is putting her to bed at night,” Graves said.
During the start of her shift at the store, she was helping bag people’s groceries. Some customers were picking up belated Valentine’s flowers and Graves chit-chatted as they made their payments.
“I just love helping people is all,” Graves said.