Job placement specialists say it was the resolution of a hiring dilemma, not a change of heart.
Coldwater Creek needed a constant stream of new employees to keep up with triple-digit growth in catalog sales. Organizations serving disabled individuals knew they had a labor pool the company could put to good use.
With some creative thinking on both sides, North Idaho’s largest employer emerged as a model for how corporate conscience can improve the bottom line.
“One of the things I heard when I came to Idaho was that Coldwater Creek was unapproachable when it came to hiring disabled workers,” said Virgil Edwards, a consultant for the training and placement firm S.L. Start. “I found them to be 180 degrees in the other direction. They were very open.”
One of the pivot points in the mail-order firm’s hiring efforts has been training specialist Gus Strand. When you’ve got a company with a payroll that could reach 1,700 workers by the end of the year, he explained, it only makes sense to explore every hiring option.
“We’re looking for people,” Strand said. “We can’t overlook that resource.”
Coldwater Creek now has two developmentally disabled employees in its distribution center and at least four physically disabled workers in the call center setting. Strand said there could be others he’s not aware of because he’s more concerned with their ability than any apparent physical disability.
“Who knows?” the trainer said. “It’s not something we measure. If they’ve got the phone presence, it’s not even something we think about.”
Physical disabilities often are simple to accommodate.
A customer service representative who has been promoted to a trainer in the Coeur d’Alene call center uses her one hand to operate a customized computer keyboard. Another disabled customer service employee uses a voice-activated computer.
Solutions also come from outside the high-tech environment. A hearing-impaired employee found it possible to do her job with the help of a $25 phone amplifier.
“Oftentimes, a small investment buys you a lot more than an accommodation,” Strand said. “It can give you a very loyal person and an exemplary employee.”
Strand and other employees at Coldwater Creek are awaiting the return of a worker who, they say, makes a difference every day he works.
John Willis broke his neck in an accident at Priest River High School in the early 1990s and spent several years in rehabilitation before he progressed from wiggling a single finger to sitting in a wheelchair.
“Most people thought he’d never work, but Coldwater Creek hired him,” Edwards said.
Jim Howard was the Idaho Department of Vocational Rehabilitation counselor who worked to help Willis finish high school and look for a job. Like Edwards, he was impressed with Coldwater Creek’s desire to find a place for disabled workers in the company.
“They worked hard at locating a position for John - rather than just creating one,” Howard said.
For the moment, Willis’ health prevents him from working.
“But the feeling over in mail-order is that whenever he shows up, we’ve got something for him,” Strand said. “He’s got good phone skills and a personality that works.”
Roger Stanton, community employment services manager for Goodwill Industries in Sandpoint, worked with Edwards to place a developmentally disabled young man named Jeff Church at Coldwater Creek.
Now, Church is a mainstay in several areas, from routing orders on the shipping line to collecting the tote baskets used by packers and delivering them on a pallet jack to the order-pickers on the other side of the distribution center.
“Do you know what these are?” Church asked Tuesday, holding up a handful of white vinyl envelopes. “We call them ‘returns.’ I fold them and put them in these boxes.”
It’s the kind of job most employees find too repetitive, Strand said, but Church gives it his all. Give him a choice, though, and he’d spend his hours on the clock hustling tote baskets off the line.
“It’s very hard to do - very fast,” he said. “It’s my favorite job.”
Church’s efforts are welcome in all the areas he covers, Strand said.
According to Stanton, that reception is the norm for most disabled individuals.
Goodwill placed a deaf employee whose first job offered no interaction. He later cross-trained into a department where his fellow workers used a signing board to communicate with him.
“Within Coldwater Creek, there are many small communities,” Stanton said. “If you enter one person at a time - and that person is a good worker - those communities will figure out ways to make it work.”
Growth at Coldwater Creek and the hiring that comes with it have made it easier to place disabled individuals in other businesses, he added.
“You’re also finding that the fact they pay well and offer benefits is forcing other businesses to do the same thing,” said Edwards, pointing to a new trend in both higher wages and insurance coverage for disabled employees.
For Coldwater Creek, there is the added benefit of “cross-pollination,” Strand said. He’s seen the attitudes of people like John Willis and Jeff Church boost the morale of everyone who comes in contact with them.
“Disability is a frame of mind more than anything,” Strand said. “I’m glad we have jobs for these folks, but I don’t really see it as helping them. I see it as helping Coldwater Creek.”
Edwards, meanwhile, believes society itself is the true beneficiary when employers draw on the disabled population as a hiring resource.
“All of us are a car accident or a slip in the bathtub away from something like this,” he said. “What kind of companies do we want out there waiting for us if that does happen?”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo