October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. It's a time each year when Americans recognize the important work being done by our fellow citizens with disabilities. At Lansing, Mich.-based Peckham Inc., however, that recognition takes place all year long. Peckham is a nonprofit vocational rehabilitation organization that advances employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Its operations include a third-party logistics services unit.
As Tom Minich, Peckham's vice president of logistics, explains, "The talents and skills of employees with disabilities are what fuels and maintains our company's success as an organization." He spoke recently with DCV's editorial director, David Maloney, about the third party's operations, the benefits of hiring the disabled, and how other companies can get started with their own hiring program.
Q: Can you tell us about Peckham and your commitment to providing employment opportunities for people with disabilities?
A: Peckham is a nonprofit vocational rehabilitation organization that specializes in training, employing, and preparing individuals with disabilities and other barriers to employment for workplace success. We believe that people with disabilities deserve the right to work and the right to choose where they work.
Peckham operates five social enterprises—supply chain solutions, business services, environmental services, apparel manufacturing, and Peckham Farms. We choose to work with customers that embrace diversity and community, and believe in the potential of all individuals.
Q: Why did you choose supply chain as one of your company's focused industries?
A: We conduct town hall meetings periodically to ask our work force what they would like to see in the future. Warehousing was one of the lines of business where we could effectively employ people with significant disabilities using technology.
Peckham has six warehouses totaling 1.4 million square feet of space, all in Lansing, Mich. From storage, to contact center, to "pick, pack, and ship," we are a one-stop logistics and fulfillment center.
Q: Who are your customers?
A: We are doing logistics support for the Defense Department, specifically the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) and the Army.
One of the operations is a repair facility for the Army's Organizational Clothing and Individual Equipment division. Peckham receives, launders, repairs, and stores thousands of items. We also stock more than 8,000 items, primarily clothing, for Navy and Coast Guard service members worldwide. Peckham ships an average of 1,500 orders each day to over 40,000 customers.
Q: Can you talk a little about the diversity found in your work force?
A: Peckham is a very diverse organization. Nearly 80 percent of our 2,500 employees have one or more physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. We are very culturally diverse, with nearly 30 languages being spoken and individuals representing more than 50 different cultures. Our supply chain solutions social enterprise employs more than 250 employees at the six different locations, and more than 97 percent of those workers have one or more disabilities. For example, among the supply chain associates, we have people with psychiatric disorders and emotional impairments, physical disabilities, developmental and learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, visual and hearing disabilities, and traumatic brain injuries.
Q: Can you provide some examples of the work that people with disabilities perform in your distribution centers?
A: Currently, 97.5 percent of all direct labor is done by persons with disabilities. These functions include receiving, storing, picking, shipping, repackaging, inspection, washing, drying, repairing, and classifying/reclassifying product. There have also been individuals with disabilities who operate in supervisory roles.
We have experienced amazing results with this work force. There are studies that show that people with disabilities are more reliable, more loyal, and more engaged than other workers, yet this is one of the most untapped resources for talent by employers because of stigma, fear, myths, and misconceptions about cost and training, or plain ignorance.
Peckham has a very high retention rate with this work force, currently 96.5 percent. Our unplanned absence rate is also very low and generally runs between 0.8 and 1.8 percent.
Q: Did you need to adapt your processes to accommodate their disabilities?
A: No. We believe in fitting the job to the employee and individualizing the work experience for every employee whether that person has a disability or not.
There are a few jobs that were carved out, but the cost from the carved-out position was neutral when compared with the savings elsewhere. An example would be wrapping pallets. Peckham has automated stretch wrappers, but a person is still needed to attach the stretch film to the pallet and start the machine. Our forklift drivers were doing this and were having to get off and on their vehicles multiple times an hour, which reduced their productivity.
We hired a visually impaired worker who now operates several stretch wrap machines simultaneously, which added a cost. But once we added that worker, the productivity of the forklift operators almost doubled, making this a cost-neutral or cost-saving initiative overall. Most accommodations can be done in this way, where there is little to no cost but the return on investment is high for all parties.
Q: Do you think concerns about the cost of accommodations keep employers from hiring workers with disabilities?
A: I do, but our experience is just the opposite. There is a myth that all people with disabilities require job accommodations, yet studies show less than a quarter of employees with disabilities need accommodations.
There are many simple accommodations that we make for workers that cost us nothing, such as schedule adjustments. Investing in our workers, providing the resources and support they need, gives us employees who love their jobs and appreciate the opportunity they were given, in turn doing outstanding work and remaining loyal to our organization.
Q: Do you have any concerns for the safety of workers with disabilities?
A: Peckham does not have any unique safety concerns outside of what any other employer has. We monitor incidents just like everyone else. We invest in training our workers well and monitor any shifts in data.
For instance, we have many hearing-impaired forklift operators. We speak with many employers who will not hire hearing-impaired forklift operators, as they cannot hear the backup sirens. We have installed strobe lights on all of our equipment so that in addition to a siren, each truck has flashing lights to alert other employees that a truck is about to enter. I would bet our incident rate is lower than at most other warehouses. It's all in the training.
Q: What must employers do to create an inclusive culture?
A: As employers, we are at an advantage if we shift our thinking from looking at people with disabilities as a burden to thinking about them as a strength for the work force. Disability is just another part of diversity. Every employer should want a more diverse and inclusive environment. We believe that inclusion drives innovation.
Q: What advice would you offer employers looking to get started?
A: Partner with your local vocational rehabilitation organizations to recruit, hire, and retain individuals with disabilities. There are many organizations similar to Peckham that are looking to partner with employers who want to make concerted efforts to hire people with disabilities.
Check out other resources, including ODEP (Office of Disability Employment Policy), JAN (Job Accommodation Network), EARN (Employer Assistance and Resource Network), and USBLN (US Business Leadership Network).
Start small and remember it's a journey. We don't have it all figured out and probably never will; but constantly listening, asking questions, and working toward the goal and mission of treating everyone with respect will yield incredible results.
Editor's note: To hear the stories of several Peckham employees, visit the organization's Facebook page.