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Hiring the Mentally Challenged to Improve Staffing.

Long-term care facilities continue to have difficulties finding and retaining dedicated employees. Halcyon House Retirement Community in Washington, Iowa, is addressing this issue by collaborating with area agencies to provide volunteer and employment opportunities for disabled individuals.

Halcyon has benefited by reducing staff turnover while gaining dedicated and reliable employees. Also, the CCRC's residents have developed special relationships with their new friends. Additionally, these special employees are grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the community.

"I've been in this industry for eight years now, and I've never seen anyone so thankful to receive a paycheck," says Brett DeWolf, environmental services supervisor, who organized the program at Halcyon. DeWolf is very familiar with this special population, having grown up with his older brother Doug who is mentally challenged. "I've been around this population all my life," he says. "I was aware of their abilities and knew they would make good employees."

DeWolf admits that when he first began working at Halcyon House he really didn't think about the possibility of hiring physically and mentally challenged employees. However, after he became familiar with the difficult task of hiring, training and retaining staff, he started looking at programs that were available. "Because of the high burnout rate," says DeWolf, "a person who has the ability to go on to a higher functioning type of job with advanceable skills won't stay in an entry-level position, per se." DeWolf and other supervisors began working with WCDC, Inc., Advanced Employment Services and the area's education agencies. These agencies share a common goal of helping individuals with disabilities obtain gainful, competitive employment so that they can work without government assistance.

"I knew several individuals who worked in the community as team members of janitorial crews," says DeWolf, "and I worked on hiring them and brought them in." His first employee through these programs was contracted through WCDC, Inc., in 1996. He performed so well that DeWolf brought him in as a Halcyon team member. Randy still works at Halcyon and has since been able to buy his own house, get his driver's license and buy his own car.

Matching the employee's abilities to the position is crucial, says DeWolf. Halcyon and the agencies study the job responsibilities and differentiate the functions that might require technical skills from those requiring skills that are easily managed. One way to separate the professional job tasks that require certification or advanced training from those that don't is through job "carving." The individuals with disabilities perform the tasks that don't require special training, and the professional staff can focus on their own work.

An "enclave" is a group of individuals hired by Halcyon to complete specified tasks. The contracted employees can be hired at substandard minimum wage. They are then paid according to their productivity, using the "supported employment subminimum wage certificate." Halcyon pays the agency, which provides a job coach to supervise the employees and ensure that the contract and the job duties are performed properly.

"I was having trouble staffing the laundry department," says DeWolf, "and, in mid-1997, I talked to WCDC about having an 'enclave' in the laundry room to do our laundry services. That has been the best move we've made. It took a little work and effort, but I have employees who are showing up to work and are grateful to have a job, and they enjoy it. The goal of the employees is to rise above a substandard minimum wage. Our goal is for them to actually do the laundry, operate the machines and do all of the sorting and delivery without the assistance of the job coach."

A total of 14 to 16 disabled individuals work or volunteer in Halcyon's seven departments. "For example, in the nursing department they do all of the snack and water functions," says DeWolf, "and they set up all of the washrags and hand towels for each resident." This allows the nurses more time to care for the residents. The opportunity hit close to home: DeWolf's brother Doug, 38, has recently started working for Halcyon as a contracted employee in the nursing department mobile work crew.

DeWolf explains that the mentally challenged employees are not simply doled out the tasks that none of the other staff want to do. "We work hard for them to be treated as fairly as anyone else," he says. "All team members or supervisors make sure that they are treated with equal respect.

The Halcyon staff weren't always so accepting of their new team members. "It took the staff a little while to get used to the new concept," says DeWolf. "There wasn't really any trouble at first, but I don't think they thought that [the disabled employees] had the skills or ability to do the program and the job. Since then they've become very accepting. They even look for things for them to do. They find something that will free up their time so they can take better care of the residents."

The residents at Halcyon appreciate the employees with disabilities as well, and they often develop special relationships with them. "One of my full-time housekeepers in the program gets off work around 2 p.m. and doesn't leave the facility right away," says DeWolf. "Often I give him a ride home from work at 5 o'clock because he stays to visit the residents. He has a really good friend who he visits every day." DeWolf adds that the residents, especially those in the health center, appreciate the human contact of the employees who take the time to visit with them.

DeWolf admits that implementing these programs at Halcyon has had its share of problems. "There has been some trial and error," he says. "We've placed people--and we don't set anyone up for failure--but we've had to back up and change some things. We haven't always matched the right employee to the right area." He adds that some residents at times are not willing to accept a disabled employee, but after the resident sees the capability and competency of these employees, acceptance soon follows.

In the supported employment program, job coaches assist employees in becoming as independent as possible. This, on occasion, can be detrimental by inadvertently providing employees a "crutch" that actually limits their capabilities, according to DeWolf. For example, they might hesitate to do their work until the job coach arrives to be sure they are doing it properly.

Despite these few problems, the employees' hard work is greatly appreciated. DeWolf returned from his week-long vacation in February and, thanks to all the dedicated employees who work in his department, it took him only four to six hours to get caught up, a feat that usually equaled the time gone. The latest QA report said his department average for quality assurance was 91.2%, and one of his supported employees had the highest assessment.

Some of the employees work beyond their job requirements. According to DeWolf, Halcyon had an emergency in one of its buildings. Randy, who as been with Halcyon the longest, was instrumental in getting residents out of the building. He even assisted in carrying two of the residents down the stairs. DeWolf adds that once they've learned their jobs and know their positions, they also make recommendations on how to do things better.

Says DeWolf, "I'd like to encourage other employers not to overlook or ignore [the disabled] population for employees. It takes some work and effort, but the effort that I've put into the program in helping these employees is far better than to have a high turnover rate and have to constantly retrain new employees. It's easier to work with somebody who wants to learn and wants to be here and do the job." Halcyon's 1999 facility-wide turnover rate was 50%. Last quarter it was 9.4%, and the Environmental Service Department had no turnover.

It's also rewarding to DeWolf and the rest of the Halcyon community to see these special employees grow and gain a sense of independence by doing "God's work." According to DeWolf, the program fits nicely into the facility's mission statement: "Affiliated with the United Methodist Church conference through our beliefs and mission statement that charges us with providing services to older adults in a Christian Caring way. Striving to enhance their physical, social, spiritual and emotional health and promote optimum independence and an active lifestyle."
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Title Annotation:Halcyon House Retirement Community, Washington, Iowa
Author:Pine, Nancy
Publication:Nursing Homes
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2000
Words:1394
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