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A comparison of janitorial workers with mental retardation and their non-disabled peers on retention and absenteeism.

In April of 1987, there were more than 500 million adults worldwide with one or more identified disabilities (Feldman, 1988). In the United States there are at least 43 million people with disabilities (Bartholomew, 1991), thirteen million of whom are of working age (Howard, 1989). According to one survey, two-thirds of working-age adults with disabilities would like to work but cannot find jobs (Bartholomew, 1991; Howard, 1989; Weinstein, 1990).

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 1991) was enacted in 1990 to combat this problem of unemployment among persons with disabilities. It prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified job applicants with a physical or mental disability, and requires businesses, and government agencies to reasonably accommodate clients and customers with disabilities who use their services (Darragh, 1991).

To many persons with disabilities, the ADA appears to be a blessing. However, for some employers the ADA is perceived as a potentially costly mandate. While the threat of litigation may convince some employers to conform to the ADA, legislation may not change the negative perceptions that stigmatize persons with disabilities (Darragh, 1991; Noel, 1990).

Most of the unfavorable beliefs about persons with disabilities are unfounded but continue to be offered as reasons not to hire them (Jamero, 1979). Employees with disabilities are thought to perform less well, have more accidents, lower attendance rates, and higher turnover (Lester & Caudill, 1987; Stevens, 1986).

It is likely that these perceptions persist due to a lack of knowledge or contact with persons with disabilities or unsuccessful experiences with these employees (Parent & Everson, 1986). However, employers' attitudes have been shown to become more positive as their experiences with persons with disabilities increase (Levy, Jessop, Rimmerman, and Levy, 1994). As a result, the ADA may act as a catalyst to help reduce the negative stereotypes surrounding employees with disabilities.

Empirical findings comparing persons with disabilities to those without disabilities contradict many of these beliefs. Research focusing on both performance and non-performance related work behaviors indicates that employees with disabilities are comparable to or better than employees without disabilities on attendance, turnover rate, productivity, safety records, and overall job performance (Greenwood & Johnson, 1987; Lester & Caudill, 1987; Parent & Everson, 1986; Stevens, 1986).

Support for these beliefs is provided in a study of the McDonald's Project (Brickey and Campbell, 1981) which reported a turnover rate of 41% for workers with mental retardation compared to a rate of 175% for non-disabled (ND). During the second year there was no turnover for the employees with MR. Results also showed that supervisors were satisfied with the attendance behavior of the workers with MR.

Results from a comparative study of workers with MR and their non-disabled peers by the National Association of Retarded Citizens (1986) found that supervisors rated the employees with MR 44% better on attendance than their non-disabled coworkers. In a more recent study, Ondusko (1991) found no differences on length of service and number of days absent from work.

Other favorable evidence for workers with mental retardation is provided by Martin, Rusch, Tines, Brulle, and White (1985) who showed that employees with MR did not significantly differ from their non-disabled peers with respect to absences (excused or unexcused), or sick leave. Unexcused absences and sick leave hours taken were actually less than those of the non-disabled. Martin et al. (1985) also found that the non-disabled workers took significantly more vacation time than their co-workers with MR, most of whom did not take vacation time even after having accrued it. A strength of the Martin et al. (1985) and Ondusko (1991) studies is that results were based on actual attendance records of employees rather than subjective evaluations of employers.

Not all evidence points to favorable findings for employees with MR when comparisons are made. Some studies show absenteeism to be a problem (Brickey, Browning, and Campbell, 1982; Rudred, Ferrara, & Ziarnick, 1980). Brickey et al. (1982) found that the primary reasons for the failure to find jobs for sheltered workshop employees with MR was due to slow work performance, poor attendance, and a lack of satisfaction with employment hours. However, the findings from this study were based on subjective employer ratings rather than empirical data. Also, since these findings were derived from workers in a sheltered environment, they may not generalize to employees with MR in a competitive work setting.

The purpose of this study was to compare workers with MR to those without disabilities from their first year of employment through their second on frequency of and reasons for absences and frequency of terminations (voluntary and involuntary). It was predicted that employees with mental retardation would have a lower rate of voluntary and involuntary terminations. This prediction was based on the assumption that, in general, alternative job opportunities would be less available to workers with mental retardation than those without a disability. It was also predicted that workers with MR would have fewer absences than their non-disabled co-workers because previous research has indicated that employees with MR are comparable to or superior than the non-disabled on attendance (Martin et al., 1985; National Association of Retarded Citizens 1986; Ondusko, 1991). In addition, because persons with MR are less likely to be married (Sands & Kozleski, 1994) and have children, it was predicted they would have fewer absences due to personal/family matters. It was also predicted they would have fewer absences due to: no call/no show, no reason given, suspensions, poor weather, and reports of no transportation because a review of 13 business and trade journals indicated that the general consensus among most businesses is that employees with disabilities are dependable, reliable, loyal and responsible (Parent & Everson, 1986). It was also expected that they would take less vacation time because empirical evidence has shown that non-disabled employees take significantly more vacation time than employees with MR (Martin et al, 1985).

Finally, groups were not expected to differ on absences due to doctors' appointments, funeral leave, jury duty, holidays, and personal time because evidence has shown no differences due to sick leave and excused absences (Martin et al., 1985).


Subjects and setting

Participants were 417 janitorial workers employed by a CARF accredited rehabilitation facility. The workers were disbursed among 6 janitorial contract sites in a large eastern metropolitan area. They were responsible for cleaning the buildings at the locations to which they were assigned. Three hundred eighteen were classified as non-disabled (ND). The remaining 99 had been diagnosed with Mental Retardation (MR) prior to employment with the facility.

The facility acquires the janitorial contracts from federal and state funding programs through competitive bids. To satisfy contract requirements, the employer must maintain a ratio of 75% disabled and 25% non-disabled man hours at each contract site. To comply with this stipulation, the employer recruits and hires persons from all disability groups. Another stipulation is that the employer provide case-management services to all employees. The casemanager's role is similar to that of an Employee Assistance Counselor. The casemanager provides support to all employees, including the non-disabled, to assist them in maintaining employment. The support can consist of counseling sessions focusing on personal or work issues, and referral to other service providers such as a drug rehabilitation facility. Since these workers with disabilities are competitively employed they are considered by the rehabilitation community to have been assimilated into the world of work.


Personnel records for all current employees were obtained to determine if they met the criteria for inclusion in the study. The records of any employees terminated between (1)1989 and 1991 were also reviewed for possible inclusion. Employees with a disability were included only if they had a documented diagnosis of mental retardation. All non-disabled employees were included.

Data on (1) length of employment and (2) reason for termination (voluntary and involuntary) was collected from the personnel records of terminated employees. Length of employment was dichotomized into less than 1 year (short term) and greater than 1 year (long term) while reasons for termination were classified as voluntary or involuntary. Data on gender or race were not collected for the terminations analysis.

For the analysis of absenteeism, data were collected on age, sex, marital status, contract site of employment, date of hire, number and reasons for absences covering employees' first and second years of employment. The total number of absences from work (i.e. missing a full day) and (2)reasons for absences were obtained from each employee's personnel records and calculated separately for year one and year two.



A total of 417 janitors were included in the study. Of those, 338 were included in the analysis of terminations and 120 for the analysis of absenteeism.

Voluntary and Involuntary Termination

Of the 338 employees in this aspect of the study, 288 were non-disabled and 50 were workers with mental retardation (MR). Results supported the first hypothesis. Workers with MR had a higher retention rate than NDs. Thirty-four percent (17 of 50) remained after their first year compared to only 10% of NDs (30 of 288); [X.sup.2] (1) = 179, p [less than] 001.

The relative proportions of voluntary to involuntary terminations for the two groups showed no differences for those leaving within their first year, [X.sup.2](1) = .829, ns. Of the 258 NDs who left in the first year, 81% (209 of 258) did so voluntarily while 19% (49 of 258) were forced to do so. Similarly, for the employees with MR, 70% (25 of 33) who left within the first year did so voluntarily while the other 8 (24%) were involuntary departures. Interestingly, the relative proportions differed for the second year terminations. Only 3 of the 30 NDs were forced to leave whereas over half of the workers with MR (9 of 17) did so involuntarily, [X.sup.2](1)=12.43; p [less than] .01, phi = .51.


Of the 120 janitors who reached their first anniversary date, 55 were non-disabled (27 males; 28 females) and 65 were workers with MR (42 males; 23 females). Almost all were single. Only 14 of the 120 (4 MRs and 10 NDs) were married.

An ANOVA for age by Status (MR vs. ND) indicated that on average, NDs were somewhat older than the workers with MR, F (1,117) = 7.52; p [less than] .01; Ms: ND = 38; MR = 32). Although age was negatively associated with absence in the first year (r = -.21, p [less than] .01), it accounted for only four percent of the variance and therefore was not considered in subsequent analyses.

About 84% (101 of 120) were evenly distributed between two primary sites. The remaining 19 (16%) were disbursed among the other four sites. There was a disproportionate number of employees with MR relative to non-disabled at the two main sites [X.sup.2](5) = 35.1; p [less than] .05. Fifty-five percent of the workers with MR (38 of 65) were at Site A, 26% (17 of 65) at Site B, with the remaining 19% distributed evenly across the other four sites. Seventy-four percent of NDs (40 of 54) were at Site A, with the remaining 26% evenly distributed across the other 5 sites.

Absences for year one. Hypothesis Two which stated that workers with MR would have fewer absences than NDs was not supported. Although an initial analysis indicated that there were significantly more absences at Site A than B. However, when two outliers (29 and 38 absences) at Site A were eliminated, absence was found not to differ by Site.

Absences for year two. Seventy of the 120 janitors completed at least two years of employment. Of these seventy long term (LT) employees, 28 were NDs and 42 were workers with MR. Most of the workers with MR (37 of 42) were located at Site A, whereas most of their ND peers (40 of 57) were at Site B.

An ANOVA for second year absences for the LT janitors by Site and Status, indicated main effects for both. However, since Site and Status were confounded, it was impossible to determine which contributed to the differences in absences. Therefore, no conclusions could be drawn regarding the influence of Status on year two absences.

An analysis of these seventy long term (LT) employees on absences for their first year indicated that the workers with MR had significantly more than NDs. Both groups of long term employees showed substantial increases in absences from year one to year two (Means yr 1: MRs = 7.0, NDs = 4.1; year 2: MRs = 13.3, ND = 8.0), [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED].

Excuses for year one. An ANOVA for excuses by status for first year absences indicated significant differences for only two of the 13 categories. NDS had significantly more absences than MRS for family/personel reasons while MRS had more due to poor weather conditions. The results do not support the hypothesis that employees with MR would have fewer absences due to personal time, no call/no show, and no reason given. However, they do confirm expectations that groups would not differ on absences due to illness, doctors' appointments, funeral leave, jury duty, and holidays.

Excuses for year two. Frequencies of absences within the 13 categories of absences were too small to conduct a meaningful analysis for the 70 who remained through their second year. The percentage of workers having no absences for each category ranged from 30% to 58% with an average percentage of 43%. Therefore no analyses were conducted to determine if groups differed on excuses for second year absences.


This study compared employees with mental retardation (MR) to non-disabled co-workers on retention rates, reasons for terminations, number of absences, and excuses for absences. As hypothesized, employees with MR had a higher retention rate than NDs. A closer look at the reasons for termination may explain why. Although groups did not differ on relative proportions of voluntary to involuntary terminations for those who left within the first year, they did for those who left within the second. MRs had a higher rate of involuntary dismissals for the second year. Compared to only 10% of NDs who were dismissed, over half of their co-workers with MR who left were forced to do so. This difference [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] could be attributed to several factors. First, and probably foremost, is that persons with MR have difficulty securing employment. There are fewer jobs available for their skill level. And for the opportunities that do exist, they are probably at a competitive disadvantage. As a result, they are probably less likely to quit a job unless forced to do so. Conversely, since NDs have greater job opportunities, they are more likely to voluntarily leave a job to acquire a better one. Also, since they have more employment alternatives, they are probably more inclined to quit when they anticipate getting fired.

Since employees with MR had a higher rate of involuntary departures in the second year, why not for the first year as well? Most likely it is due to the fact that since workers are on probation for the first year they are probably more inclined to exhibit their best behavior for that period. Once they are no longer on probation, they may be more likely to "slack off" if they are so inclined. This would eventually lead to more involuntary terminations for workers with MR because of their unwillingness to quit since they have fewer alternative employment opportunities. Also, NDs are probably better able to read the signs of impending termination and therefore more likely to resign before being fired. A third factor may have to do with the nature of the employment contract. Because of the mandated ratio of 75% disabled to 25% non-disabled man-hours, the employer may be reluctant to terminate workers with MR who are performing poorly. They may also be more inclined to allow them more time for improvement. Therefore, it may be that only after the poor performance persists into the second year and becomes too costly, that they feel compelled to terminate.

The second part of the study compared both groups on number of absences for the first two years and specific excuses given for the absences. Contrary to predictions, employees with MR did not have fewer total absences for either year. Surprisingly, for those who stayed at least two years, there was a substantial increase in number of absences during the second year for both groups of employees. However, because a large proportion of long term employees with MR were at one site and most NDs were at another, it was impossible to determine how much conditions at the respective sites contributed to differences in absenteeism for the second year. Confounding of Site and Status was not a problem for the analysis of first year absences.

Although the groups did not differ on overall rates of absenteeism for year one, employees with MR did show a lower rate for personal/family reasons. This difference is probably due to the fact that workers with MR are likely to have fewer family commitments compared to NDs. They did not however, show a lower rate for the other six categories as predicted. Contrary to predictions, the workers with MR had a higher rate of absences due to poor weather. They may be more adversely affected by inclement weather since they are more likely than non-disabled to rely on assistance from parents, other relatives and public transportation. As a result, employers might need to consider transportation alternatives for these employees such as the development of a ride share program.

A particular strength of this study is that it assessed work related behaviors of employees with MR in a competitive work environment. Additionally, the sample included workers within the same occupation at several diverse work sites. Therefore, greater confidence can be placed in generalizing the findings to employees with MR who are working in the general workforce. Unfortunately, confounding of Status and Site for long term employees, made it impossible to assess differences in absences for the second year.

Conclusions from these findings suggest that hiring persons with mental retardation may be a trade off. On the positive side, these individuals may be more committed to staying with the company. On the other hand, employers may find it more difficult to terminate them when circumstances deem it necessary to do so. If poor performance is a factor that contributes to their higher rate of involuntary termination, then employers must be prepared to assess the reasons for it. Perhaps improved training or job restructuring may help remedy the problem. In addition, making accommodations such as a ride share or work-at-home program might eliminate the problem of absences due to no transportation or inclement weather. It seems clear however, that workers with mental retardation can contribute much to the workforce. Their commitment to the job and dependability can benefit the employer by reducing voluntary terminations and thus reducing recruitment and hiring expenditures.

As we develop a better understanding of how to accommodate the workplace to fit the needs and strengths of those with mental retardation, employers will be better able to utilize this under-represented segment of our human resources.

1. Only one time period when achival data was available.

2 Reasons for absence from work include illness, vacation, jury duty, holiday, poor weather conditions, suspension, personal time, funeral leave, no transportation, doctors appointment, personal/family reasons, no call/no show, and no reason given.


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Brickey, M., & Campbell, K. (1981). Fast food employment for moderately and mildly mentally retarded adults: The McDonald's project. Mental Retardation 19(3), 113-116.

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Ondusko, D. (1991). Comparison of employees with disabilities and able-bodied workers in janitorial maintenance. Journal of Applied Rehabilitation Counseling, 22, 19-24.

Parent, W. S., & Everson, J. M. (1986). Competencies of disabled workers in industry: A review of business literature. Journal of Rehabilitation, 52(4), 16-23.

Rudred, E., Ferrara, J., & Ziarnik, J. (1980). Living placement and absenteeism in community based training programs. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 84, 401-404.

Sands, D. & Kozleski, E. B.(1994). Quality of life differences between adults with and without disabilities. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 8(2), 90-101.

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Weinstein, J. (1990). Ready & able. Restaurants & Institutions, 100, 68-69, 72, 74, 76, 78.

Gretchen E. Adams-Shollenberger, 4100C Richmond Lane, Blacksburg, Virginia 24060
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Author:Mitchell, Thomas E.
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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