In the 26 years since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, public policy and public opinion have shifted to support the integration of people with disabilities into the workforce. Employing people with disabilities has benefits for both the private sector and for the government. For many businesses, people with disabilities make up an untapped talent pool that tends to stay loyal to employers, lowering turnover rates. For the government, increasing work opportunities for people with disabilities can have great cost-saving effects in terms of disability benefits.
H-E-B, a retailer with 370 stores in Texas and Mexico, has recognized the benefits of hiring people with disabilities — and has partnered with an office of the state government to find potential new employees with disabilities.
Working together, they have launched H-E-B’s Abilities Workforce Initiative in San Antonio to recruit clients referred by the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS), many of whom become H-E-B Partners (H-E-B’s name for employees). Professionals at DARS select participants with disabilities to attend a weeklong workshop where they learn soft skills and more about H-E-B. After the week, each individual decides whether or not to continue the process. The next step is an interview with the hope of being hired. Once hired, job coaching is offered for the transition to the work environment and ongoing support is available. H-E-B hopes to expand the Abilities Workforce Initiative statewide.
For Sonia Quirino Canales, diversity and inclusion manager at H-E-B, the Abilities Workforce Initiative is an incredible advantage for the company. “The diversity of our workforce is one of our biggest assets. It helps us to better understand the needs and preferences of a community while continuously building a culture of inclusion,” she says. “With high unemployment rates among individuals with disabilities, having a good job is life changing. Our Partners with disabilities take great pride in having and keeping their job.”
Canales recalls meeting Greg Ornelas, an Abilities Workforce Initiative graduate, a few months ago on a video shoot for the program. Ornelas is a customer service assistant who has been working for H-E-B for over a year. He does his job so well, Canales says, that in a short amount of time, he became responsible for training new Partners. “I teach the Partners how to bring in the carts [and] the newer Partners how to bag fast — how to keep up with a good pace and a good motion,” Ornelas explained to her.
Yvonne Maldonado, his unit director, says that the great thing about Ornelas is that he understands his job, he knows what needs to be done, he knows why, and he does it. He is described as being committed, loyal, and punctual — in fact, he comes in early every day, and tries to be the best he can be. When Canales asked Ornelas how he feels about working at H-E-B, he told her, “It feels great! I’m actually surprised that I made it one year. Let’s see if I can keep it going for more years to come. I don’t know how to put it in words. I’m just really happy to be working here.”
H-E-B also recognizes the value of disability awareness education for its entire staff. The company uses a variety of methods to educate its workforce about the diversity of this community. From a long-standing partnership with Special Olympics Texas, to producing videos, hosting Lunch and Learns, celebrating Disability Employment Awareness Month to presenting an Autism Art Exhibit, it has created a culture of inclusion where each and every employee is a valued member of the team.