Kari Warberg Block Founder and CEO, Earth-Kind
A decade ago, we were in the midst of a painful labor shortage at our plant. Our company, earthkind, was growing, and I was having great difficulty recruiting workers to fill the jobs. Then, in a fateful discussion I’ll never forget, one of my employees raised the question of whether I had considered employing developmentally disabled workers to take on key roles in the production process.
My philosophy as employer is to see myself as a “farmer-in-charge.” By this, I mean that I consider myself the leader of a collaborative team who through our work together, and an unshakeable commitment to deliver on our brand promise, create an ecosystem conducive for ever-green growth across all areas: people, products, process, and culture.
As I began to research the role that a productive work life can play in the lives of developmentally disabled workers, I became more certain that this decision was right for my company. I was especially invested because I myself grew up in special education classes, diagnosed with a learning disorder and discouraged by some educators as to whether I would ever have the chance to play a productive role as a worker.
However, I think I only vaguely grasped the full range of benefits that employing developmentally disabled workers would bring to earthkind. As soon as I began incorporating these workers into our plant’s ecosystem, though, those benefits quickly came to light.
Now, after 10 years of having these vital employees as part of our team, I can’t imagine running my company differently. Sure, creating jobs and connecting with the community are rewarding aspects of building any business, but I have found the rewards have multiplied infinitely when working with developmentally disabled workers for whom this job has made a major impact on their lives and who, in return, have had a major impact on my business and me personally through their skilled performance in our manufacturing process. That is why these workers now comprise 30 percent of our workforce.
Recently, I had a chance to tour another facility — Tamarlane Industries in Beaver Dam, Kentucky — that employs physically and developmentally disabled employees as its complete workforce. This was my first chance seeing another manufacturing facility that incorporates such workers in the production process. Tamarlane assists in the production process for companies in a range of industries — from automotive to furniture to the housing market. As I toured the plant with manager Richard Goodall, we began sharing stories about the inspiring work we’ve seen from our employees. And, in that discussion, four key attributes of what these employees bring to the labor force arose:
Loyalty: My employees show up every day happy to be there. For some, it has been their first regular job. But, across the board, what inspires me is how these employees strive to do their best, not just the bare minimum. They appreciate doing meaningful work in the world, and I find that they gain a new sense of self through working on something they believe in. A few of these employees have shared that they even bless each product they touch because they are so grateful to be a valued team member. As an employer, you know that kind of loyalty can’t be bought. It must be earned.
Light: These employees love their job and believe that they are making a positive difference — and they do. This light spreads to everyone and keeps spirits high so we can all have fun and not take ourselves too seriously. Most of the workers pray for our success and cry for our failures. Recalling their harmonized cooperation always bring us back to center in times of uncertainty. And their determination and progress as employees has continuously forced me to strive to improve myself and furthered my resolve and determination. They inspire me on a weekly basis, and I hope that I, in return, can do the same for them.
Hard work: Assembly in our plant consists of many repetitive tasks, and some of our developmentally disabled workers particularly thrive with a set pattern of activities. When I see, for instance, an autistic worker who would be declared by many to not have something valuable to contribute to the economy yet who not only finds self-worth in completing a job in my plant but who also contributes significantly to our ability to meet our production needs, I realize just how much untapped potential there is in a workforce that is not “dis-abled” at all.
Our developmentally disabled workers today run our cartoner, our boxing machine, and our assembly systems. They have worked with me to perfect these systems. And they bring a consistency to our plant that I have never seen before. As a business owner, I can honestly say that it is the consistency of my manufacturing team that has helped us scale to plan, keep cash flow strong, morale high, and deliver a quality product with a 90 percent repeat purchase rate.
Logic: Having diversity in a business allows for ideas that would not normally arise that allow us to remain a market leader. And these employees often see things in a clearer, simpler way, without other motives cluttering up the thought process. These employees have helped me improve efficiencies in our production process through attention to detail for patterns most of us would overlook. They have helped me keep close watch on any maintenance issue that might arise with our equipment. And they have even shaped aspects of our marketing and packaging. For example, the reason my signature appears on the label of our products is because a worker asked me one day, “Kari, you sign your name on everything you believe in, so shouldn’t you sign your name on this?” I couldn’t argue with that — and now my signature has become a symbol customers can trust.
For those of you who own or manage a business, I suggest you likewise consider employing developmentally disabled workers as part of your labor force as your business grows, if you have roles that might be a good fit. Bill Clinton once said, “We all do better when we work together. Our differences do matter, but our common humanity matters more.” I couldn’t agree more, and I now couldn’t imagine running my business without this key part of our team.
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