Stroke victim Cynthia Cannon, 55, once worked at a Winn-Dixie store bagging groceries. But she was laid off and said she had trouble finding another job until she went to Goodwill Industries of South Florida, which specializes in employing those with disabilities and special needs .
While she likes her job, which involves weighing cinnamon sticks for a Badia Spices product, she hopes for other employment.
"I hope to get a better job. I tried, but it's hard to find one right now," said Cannon, who works at Goodwill in Fort Lauderdale.
Worse off are the many disabled and special needs residents in South Florida who can't find a job or can only find part-time or jobs paying minimum wage. Workers with disabilities have always had the largest unemployment but during the recession, it got even worse. Many were laid off just like other workers in the recession and the employment has been slow to return.
Four years ago, Goodwill Industries once placed about 1,800 disabled workers a year with private employers; in 2011, that numbers fell to 1,200. This year, executive director Dennis Pastrana doesn't expect to place more than 900 workers.
Moreover, "the availability of good jobs has really been reduced dramatically," Pastrana said.
In Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, there are more than 532,000 adults with a disability and 43 percent of them are unemployed. In Broward County, nearly 37 percent of disabled workers were unemployed, according to the 2010 Census.
Gulfstream Goodwill Industries, which serves Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, helped about 2,900 workers with employment, according its 2011 annual report. Of those, 532 were placed at private employers including Boca Resort, St. Mary's Hospital and Joseph's Classic Market, said Marvin Tanck, CEO.
Pam Heyer, director of adult programs for The Arc in Palm Beach County, which has a smaller employment program for mentally challenged individuals, said its employment program is about half of what it was a few years ago, but she's seeing some improvement. The Arc has placed workers at Publix Supermarkets, McDonald's, Macy's, T.J. Maxx and other retailers.
"Our folks have stayed on the job but a lot of them have had their hours cut," Heyer said.
Another problem is that employers expect workers today to multi-task, she said. In retail, an employee may work behind the scenes but also be called upon to run a cash register. "That has an impact on the people we serve. They're good at learning a repetitive task but employers are bringing in additional responsibilities that may be beyond the ability of some folks."
At Goodwill, workers do tasks that accommodate their disability, often one repetitive task that they can handle.
Goodwill Industries of South Florida has contracts with the federal government to make military uniforms and flags designed for the caskets of fallen soldiers. Workers make an average of $9 an hour, Pastrana said.
Terry Newmones, who is blind from an accident when he was a child, has been trained to stitch military uniforms at Goodwill. The sewing equipment has been adapted to sew automatically once it is placed by Newmones, who uses his fingers to position the garment. He uses his foot to operate the sewing machine.
Now 50, Newmones has been working at Goodwill for 12 years and is proud that he is able to do work to support his country.
"It helps to have a paycheck and it helps out our Department of Defense," said Newmones, who is one of the more than 950 workers with a disability who make garments and flags at Goodwill's Miami center. In a separate room, other workers place inserts in the feature section of The Miami Herald.
In Fort Lauderdale, workers pack spices for Badia Spices, destroy documents for the IRS, and codify and sell donated books on Amazon.com.
Kevan Cooper, 38, is paralyzed on his right side but he is able to work at Goodwill by sitting down while working in spice packaging. "My social worker found the job for me," said Cooper, who adds that he likes the work.
Beyond the income, Pastrana said work is important for disabled workers for their self-esteem, social skills and staying as functional as possible. But some workers who have mental issues and aggressive behavior or very limited mobility are the toughest to place.
"Employers like to hire people with a disability they can see and understand," he said.
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