Ready, Willing And ‘Abled’
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Ready, Willing And ‘Abled’

The newest innovations in grocery chain’s long history of hiring high school students with disabilities.

Thirty-five years ago, Dale Giovengo, the human resources director for Giant Eagle, a chain of grocery and convenience stores in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, approached the company’s CEO, David Shapira, with an idea: to recruit and hire people with disabilities to work in Giant Eagle stores. Shapira was initially reluctant to encourage Giovenga’s idea — he was mostly concerned that customers might react negatively towards employees with visible disabilities. But he trusted his HR director’s instincts and told Giovengo to go for it, deciding it was worth a shot.

Almost immediately, Shapira was amazed at the flood of positive comments from Giant Eagle customers. People would share written and verbal feedback about their interactions with the new Giant Eagle employees — Shapira would frequently hear comments like, “I will only check out in so-and-so’s line…” or “I look for so-and-so when I go to the deli…,” letting the company know that their inclusive approach to hiring was not only being tolerated, but was being embraced.

While Giovengo has moved on to work in another position and Shapira has retired, the practice of hiring people with disabilities has continued and been expanded in the last 35 years throughout the company. Shapira’s son, Jeremy, now serves as the director of special projects on inclusion and diversity and is working on a number of initiatives to support employees with disabilities through the stores.

One such initiative was a pilot program with the United Way called “21 and Able.” The two-year pilot began in 2013 and was focused on giving high school students with disabilities, who often struggle to find job placement once their educational supports end at 21. The program embedded a disability professional into the company — someone who could look at the managers’ store processes and help them adapt training and support for employees with disabilities.

“21 and Able” was a real success — Giant Eagle hired and retained 24 high school students over a six-month period. The company maintained the position of disability liaison — in Pittsburgh one full-time professional works with high school students and another works with adults. There are also liaisons in Cleveland and Columbus.

Employees with disabilities work in a range of positions within Giant Eagle, from bagging groceries to working in the bakery and prepared food sections, meat wrapping (which is a skilled position) and car wash attendant.

“We’ve had to do very little inclusion training for our staff,” explains Jeremy Shapira. “It’s our Giant Eagle culture to want to help each other.”

Shapira partners with a number of nonprofit agencies that serve adults with disabilities: Achieva and Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services in Pittsburgh, and New Avenues to Independence and Goodwill in Columbus. He encourages other companies to pursue similar partnerships. “You don’t have to go it alone,” he says. “Use their expertise.”

With Achieva, Giant Eagle is working on a new vision: job carving. Job carving is a process in which work duties are analyzed and specific tasks are identified that might be assigned for people with more severe disabilities. With this approach, Giant Eagle has recently hired a woman who has more complex needs and found tasks that she can do, including restocking coffee cups and wiping down counters.

Shapira looks forward to where the company is going, knowing that hiring people with disabilities is firmly woven into his company’s culture. He often speaks about the work that Giant Eagle is doing with other companies — and acknowledges to them that the biggest hurdle is the fear factor that his father felt 35 years ago. “Once you bridge that, anything is possible,” he says.

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