The Arc

 -Employment of People with Disabilities-

by Kristin Wright and Stephane Leblois

In February 2021, Kandi Clubine will celebrate her 12th anniversary as a proud employee of Fry’s Food Stores in Glendale, Arizona. Kandi is looking forward to many more years at Fry’s and her retirement one day as one of her customers’ favorite employees.

“People want me to stay,” Kandi told us with a smile.

Kandi’s career at Fry’s is much more than a job. It is a significant part of her life and independence in the community. It is an achievement that shines as an example to others. It is her sense of financial security. Kandi works part time five days a week.

When Kandi was born in 1964, her intellectual disability was called something else – an awful word starting with the letter R that with years of work, disability rights advocates are now finally so close to eliminating from the English lexicon once and for all. Over Kandi’s 56 years, hard-fought progress has been made in advancing the civil and human rights of people with disabilities in this country. We recognize more and more that employment is a vitally important piece of the equation and the mission among disability rights advocates to normalize disability in the community, at home, and in the workplace.

“Very proud of her,” Kandi’s mother Ginger Pottenger, former president of The Arc of Arizona and The Arc of Kansas, shared with us. “We’ve always had high expectations that Kandi would work. I’ve always – whatever state we’ve lived in – I’ve always pressured the [disability] service system that we wanted Kandi in a real job in the community. This is the longest that she’s ever worked anywhere. I’m exceedingly proud of her.”

During an uncertain time of record unemployment and job loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kandi feels fortunate to still be employed with safety measures in place. Kandi bags groceries and collects shopping carts from the parking lot of the store. She engages with customers, many of them regulars. Fry’s supplies protective masks to all associates. Kandi says she understands why keeping her mask on throughout her four-hour shifts helps protect her and others from the virus, but she considers it the hardest part of the job. The store also provided an hour of COVID-19 safety training and installed protective barriers in checkout lanes and enhanced cleaning procedures. Kandi takes her temperature each workday when she returns home and washes her hands diligently.

But Kandi’s mother Ginger admits, as cases of the virus soared in Arizona and across the country, she was concerned about Kandi’s safety. Customers at Fry’s Food Stores were not required to wear masks until Maricopa County enacted a mask mandate a few months into the pandemic.

“It was one of those things I worried about,” Ginger told us. “For Kandi, routine is very important. And the thought of not having her typical routine was just kind of crazy making for us. What would happen and what would she do?” she wondered. “It wouldn’t be like Kandi could go to a typical day program because they weren’t open. It made more sense to have her go to work.”

From a mother who has been successfully fighting and winning battles at the front lines for and with her daughter for more than a half century, the decision they made together was clear. Employment is what Kandi wants.

But it is a dilemma faced by many families whose day programs and regular supports and services are suspended now: the very human need for contact with others vs a virus that has disproportionately infected and taken the lives of people with disabilities.

Old and New Challenges Facing Jobseekers with IDD

Kandi, like many other work-eligible individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), has beaten social isolation by going into work. At the same time, finding and retaining a job during the pandemic has become increasingly difficult, especially for individuals with IDD. Research conducted by Global Disability Inclusion in 2020 suggests that close to 40% of people with disabilities were laid off or furloughed as a result of the pandemic. This is a worrying trend for jobseekers with IDD especially, who are among the most underemployed subgroups in the labor force.

For jobseekers with IDD, the safety threat posed by the coronavirus, coupled with pre-existing barriers to employment and a now struggling national economy, create compounding barriers that now make finding a job in the community extremely difficult.

Risk of infection in the workplace: Individuals like Kandi who are working in person in brick-and-mortar retail or services are at risk of exposure to the virus. People with IDD and their caregivers have suffered some of the highest infection and mortality rates in the country during the pandemic[1]. While employers are required to keep their employees as safe as possible, not all employers follow federal and local safety guidelines uniformly.

Availability of supports: Many individuals with IDD receive support from paid caregivers and job coaches to live independently and be successful in their jobs. The pandemic has hit the disability services industry hard, where many agencies have either been forced to close or cut staff.

Increased competition: Millions of work-eligible Americans are out of jobs and are competing for the same jobs as people with IDD, many of whom are first-time job seekers and risk being overlooked in favor of more experienced applicants. This means that the hourly jobs that were previously available to people with IDD have now become harder to obtain as the demand for jobs drastically outweighs the supply.

Ginger believes that the challenges people with IDD often face in securing and maintaining meaningful employment long before the pandemic weighed in the back of her mind, as she considered the pros and cons of Kandi’s continued employment during a public health crisis.

In acknowledgment of her hard work as an essential worker, Kandi received “Hero pay” or a small pay increase during certain months last year and a few bonuses, in addition to extra cash on her store shopping card. Kandi’s job coach Michelle continues to support her at the store one hour a week.

For Kandi’s 5th anniversary at Fry’s, the team gave her a Frye’s watch with the store logo on the face. For her 10 year, the store gifted her with a camera. In a few years, pandemic or not, Kandi will celebrate her 15th anniversary as a Fry’s team member.

While the future feels so hard to see for many people, Kandi is clear on the years ahead. After retirement, she plans to stay active and engaged in the community as a volunteer.

“She likes to be busy. Kandi is not one who likes to sit,” Ginger told us smiling at her daughter.

Busy and fulfilled with a sense of purpose.

1 National Public Radio. “COVID-19 Infections And Deaths Are Higher Among Those With Intellectual Disabilities”. Retrieved on 9/30/20 at https://www.npr.org/2020/06/09/872401607/covid-19-infections-and-deaths-are-higher-among-those-with-intellectual-disabili