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Coeur d’Alene program coaches workers with disabilities

When Christopher Griffin fills out job applications, he knows his work history stands out for the wrong reason. He hasn’t held a job since 2005, well before the recession.

The 31-year-old Spokane man was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis seven years ago this month. The news derailed his working life.

Numbness in one foot – a symptom of the disease that attacks the central nervous system – forced Griffin to quit his last job as a line cook.

“We had hot oil, sharp knives – you know, just everything that would be an issue,” he said.

After years of fine-tuning medical treatments and attending community college accounting classes part time, Griffin is ready to go back to work. He hopes to land a job that permits him to mostly sit, as standing for long periods is difficult.

“I’m interested in most any work as long as I don’t have to stand,” he said. “I’m willing to take chances, try different things.”

Griffin is one of hundreds of people with disabilities who are looking for employment in a job market still saturated with unemployed and underemployed workers.

He’s getting help through Ability Works, a program that finds job leads for disabled workers and provides career coaching.

“Kind of our big thing is not just to get a person in a job but to get them in a job that’s going to fit,” said Linden Custer, program manager for Ability Works, a branch of the nonprofit Tesh Inc. in Coeur d’Alene.

Aaron Lorenz is one such success story. The 22-year-old Coeur d’Alene resident and graduate of Project CDA Alternative School had worked a number of jobs, including at a fast-food chain in town. But he struggles with anxiety and easily gets overwhelmed. He said he needs work where he can focus on learning the routine.

“It was like I was on a tightrope the whole time,” Lorenz said.

For most of a year he was out of work and couch-surfing. Then the local office of the Idaho Division of Vocational Rehabilitation referred him to Ability Works.

Custer accompanied Lorenz to several job interviews and helped him land a position as a dishwasher at the Coeur d’Alene Resort.

Now four months into it, Lorenz said he loves his work. His supervisor has been patient and lets him stop and regain his composure when he feels engulfed by the dishes and glassware that constantly pile up around him, he said.

“The early weeks were stressful, man. It got intense,” he said.

But he learned to focus on small tasks that could easily be accomplished rather than dwell on the whole job. He’s working full time and has his own place and car now.

Ability Works is helping about 150 individuals with disabilities look for work. It’s quite a jump from a low of 18 clients before the recession, Custer said.

In the past five months the program helped 35 people find employment.

Many clients are looking for entry-level jobs, such as janitorial or kitchen work.

“In those markets, it seems like a lot of those jobs have been taken by folks that may be overqualified for those positions because of the way the economy has been lately,” Custer said.

“I had a manager say, ‘Well, I’ll put him on top of the stack right now, but I’ve had 300 applicants for this dishwashing job.’ … You know on that your work is cut out for you trying to get somebody hired, let alone someone with a disability,” he said.

About 21 percent of adults with disabilities are in the labor force, down from about 23 percent four years ago, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate among those workers is 13.5 percent, well above the jobless rate of 7.3 percent for all employees in the U.S.

Lack of recent work experience can be a real hindrance to people attempting to re-enter the workforce after a prolonged absence, Custer said. Sometimes they need to start with volunteer work to freshen up their resume and demonstrate to employers they are eager to work again, he said.

Other times, employers are unsure they’ll end up with a dependable and stable employee. Ability Works will talk with them about what to expect from a person with a disability.

“They’re an employee just like everyone else they would have,” Custer said. “Given a chance, we have folks who have stayed on jobs for 10, 20, 30 years, just because once they do get that job, and it’s what they were looking for, they never want to leave.”

Griffin, the Spokane man with MS, receives Social Security disability income and is on a tight budget. He needs to find work to be able to pay tuition to complete his accounting certificate.

Ability Works is helping him through the federally funded Ticket to Work program, designed for Social Security recipients who aim to work again.

After five years of trying various treatments and rebuilding strength, Griffin’s condition is stable. He can stand and walk without assistance but grows fatigued after more than a couple hours on his feet.

“What I had to do eventually was just kind of learn to live within my disability, instead of charging through it like I was used to,” he said.

He has applied for several jobs recently but has had no interviews. He’s looking for something like a call center, assembly work, maybe a cashier where he can sit down.

“I’m willing to do a lot of things if given a shot,” he said.

“They’d have to take a chance on me, and I haven’t found anyone yet who is willing. I’ll keep searching, that’s for sure.”



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