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For some, it’s more than a job

Thu., Nov. 24, 2005

On a late Friday afternoon, many of the workers at the F.O. Berg plant in Spokane Valley have already gone home. Not those from Nova Services.

One small crew is rolling foam batting, threading the bats into long plastic sleeves will be incorporated into booms used to contain oil spills.

Nearby, another group makes covers for aluminum rolled at the nearby Kaiser Aluminum Corp. Trentwood mill.

And then there’s the indefatigable Derrick Robertson, who’s attaching Velcro strips to what will become a flap on one of the big tents Berg makes for the military. Robertson was so determined to work when he started at Berg several months ago that, when he noticed other employees were already there when he arrived, began catching ever earlier buses to arrive with everyone else. When he started arriving before the doors opened, Nova finally had to rein him in.

Robertson’s work ethic, and that of the 21 other Nova employees, has made Berg managers sturdy advocates for workers who may be deaf, emotionally troubled, or physically or mentally challenged. With a potential $248 million contract for thousands of tents pending, Berg Manufacturing Vice President Craig Dolsby expects to call on Nova for more workers.

“We’ll need all the extra help we can get,” he says.

Dolsby says Nova workers do almost everything in the plant except cut and sew the heavy fabric used in making the tents and another, newer line of Berg products, which are bladders that hold potable water or fuel. It may take two from Nova to complete a task a single Berg employee can handle, but the tradeoff is a set of tent ropes or other components done flawlessly time after time without supervision.

“The level of quality they can put into a product is unmatched,” says David Coombs, general manager for Berg Manufacturing.

Nova employees did 90 percent of the work that went into making new engine covers for Washington Air National Guard tankers out at Fairchild Air Force Base. Crews visiting the base from North Dakota were so impressed they had a set made for their planes.

But Nova workers do not do janitorial work, the kind of task too many employers consign to people that, with training, Berg has found can do much more.

Nova takes care of the training and, for Berg, much of the instruction was handled by Tom Murphy, Nova manager of commercial operations.

Murphy breaks every task down to a second-by-second process, then walks Nova workers through the steps towards a finished task. Nova also creates illustrations that provide an additional prompt. If some kind of mechanical aid is necessary, Nova makes that, too.

If each task is challenging, but doable, clients can be brought incrementally up to surprising levels of capability, he says.

“Some of these people experience challenges buttoning their shirts in the morning,” Murphy says. “They’re used to challenges.”

Dozens of other Nova workers get the same kind of coaching at the agency’s nearby headquarters, which harbors a clean room and paint booth, as well as less specialized work space. Nova refurbishes The Spokesman-Review newspaper racks.

Logue Industries and Plus Manufacturing are also clients. In fact, Nova does all the mixing, filling and shipping of Plus cleaning supplies.

“We take care of everything for them,” Murphy says.

Although Berg has worked with Nova for several years, the relationship has reached a new level in the last year, when Nova workers began to work inside the Berg plant instead of at Nova itself. Some federal contracts are set aside for nonprofit organizations like Nova and their partners. But Coombs stresses that Nova workers are involved in all kinds of contracts, set asides or not.

“We want to help,” he says. “We haven’t necessarily done it to secure contracts.”

Coombs and Murphy agree that all Berg workers have welcomed their Nova counterparts, creating personal relationships especially rewarding to Nova clients who otherwise might have little contact with anyone other than their peers.

Dolsby says Berg likes to keep the work environment casual despite the production demands. Occasionally, the floor is cleared, chairs set up, and a screen is lowered from the ceiling. The crew and their families watch movies, party if it’s the Super Bowl or, more recently, celebrate Halloween.

The Nova crew had a blast, he says.

“They need people,” says Murphy, who adds that the rewards of working with Nova clients have offset by multiples the big cut in salary he took when he left a Spokane-area electronics manufacturer several years ago.

About 75 percent of those in the U.S. with disabilities are unemployed, yet they have so much to offer other employers like Berg.

“It’s sad,” Murphy says.

Sadder still because Nova and other similar agencies around Spokane do not have the financial resources to help all those who could be contributing to society with the proper training and support.

If Berg moves or expands in Post Falls, a move now under consideration, Nova’s workers would follow.

“We’ll still supply the people,” Murphy says. “We’re tied together in all this.”

“They’re somebody you can count on,” says Coombs, who adds that every employer has a job that can be done by someone with a disability, if given the chance. And it’s not just about doing good, or doing business.

“They haven’t grown near as much as we have,” he says.


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