Juneau job developer thinks outside the pigeon hole

Posted: Thursday, October 25, 2001

Linda "Linni" Esther, a job developer with Juneau Works, is so good at what she does that she has found employment for more than 100 clients in three years.

All of Esther's clients have physical or mental disabilities. Among them is Gary Bell, 45. In Bell's case, Esther took a different tack from shaping a job in an existing business to his skills; she helped Bell create his own business, Bell Enterprises, which supplies snacks to five locations.

"We got into this because Gary loves pop," Esther said, as Bell nibbled on a Snickers, his favorite.

Originally from Idaho, Bell moved to Juneau five years ago. He prefers working on his own to being part of an office. Therefore, Esther came up with the idea of selling snacks on the honor system. Bell's job coach, Galadriel Currin, helps him buy stock at Costco.

Bell Enterprises recently got a $300 grant from the University of Alaska Anchorage's Disabilities Program, which will help Bell buy vending machines for snacks and beverages. This will increase his profits and free them from the honor system.

Esther is so successful that her supervisor, Martha Stracener, deputy director of Reach Inc., says she has "special powers."

"She is one of those people who is always focused, always working hard and really believes in the mission of what we do," said Stracener, formerly the director of Juneau Works, and the person who hired Esther.

Founded in 1997, Juneau Works developed out of a custodial arm of Reach Inc., which cleaned office buildings.

Esther's talent is thinking outside the box in terms of job descriptions and work arrangements.

"A person with a mental illness might need to take breaks regularly to call a counselor," she said. "A person with physical stiffness from an accident may need to take breaks to do stretches. A worker who gets distracted easily might need to have his desk moved to a spot with less traffic."

Such accommodations rarely cost employers money, and they allow them to hire employees who are dependable. For example, a Virginia Commonwealth University study of 1,452 people, revealed that 91 percent of workers with disabilities perform as well as or better than non-disabled workers. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce study showed that people with disabilities tend to maintain better than average job attendance and had an 80 percent lower turnover rate.

Many of Esther's clients were born disabled. Others come to her from vocational rehabilitation programs after recovering from industrial accidents or alcohol-related car accidents.

"Some can handle executive office positions and others can work in machine shops," she said.

The average employer might not consider a handicapped person for very specialized jobs, but Esther has shown, through "job carving," that such arrangements can work.

"We have our clients offer a certain skill for a few hours a week to demonstrate their usefulness," she said. "They start with volunteer positions, and after office managers see how well they do, those managers become advocates for our clients."

For instance, state jobs may require confidentiality. Esther placed a client who cannot speak but is good with numbers at the Department of Revenue to fill out time sheets two hours a day three days a week. The Department of Law needs confidential documents shredded. She matched that job with someone who is blind.

"Even though they are not getting paid, they have a routine and they love it," she noted. Many clients are on Social Security and do not need full-time positions.

When Esther came on board, Juneau Works had five employees. Because of her skill as the sole job developer, there are now 18 employees.

They include job trainers and employment specialists - "job coaches" who accompany clients to jobs and give field support. They also may tutor clients in life skills such as shopping or balancing a checking account. Clients also are backed up by employment consultants who "keep track of funding and the bigger picture at the work site," Esther said.

Employers wishing to know more about Juneau Works can request a public relations packet by calling 789-7522. Free consultations are available.

To celebrate diversity in the workplace, Juneau Works is holding its annual open house from 3-5 p.m. Friday at 2490 Industrial Boulevard. Employers and the general public are invited.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.

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