A community-based employment program at Boulder Station is part of a new wave in job training — and civil rights — for adults with intellectual disabilities.
[Click the “Listen” links in the story to hear audio from Rachel Christiansen’s companion piece on “KNPR’s State of Nevada.”]
Like most introverts, Pamela Stevens is stingy with conversational details. It’s all “Yes” and “No” and gazing into her soda straw until I finally hit on something she’s interested in: her husband John’s job as a bounty hunter. On this subject, she regales me with lengthy descriptions of the techniques used to capture legal fugitives, pausing only for quick bites of her lunch at Slices Pizzeria in Boulder Station.
“They (John and his business partner) always give people a second chance,” she confides. “If they admit that they have a warrant, then it goes a lot better for them.”
Stevens also goes into great detail about her own job, as a buser at the casino café, where she’s just finished her shift. She spends another 15 minutes of conversation just on the required “side work”: rolling up silverware in napkins, trundling dishes off to the washing room, that sort of thing.
But nothing, other than Stevens’ borderline-obsessive love of her job — and the missing thumb on her right hand — seems unusual about the 44-year-old being here, enjoying a slice after a busy morning in which she made $12 an hour plus tips.
It is remarkable, though, for several reasons, all related to her having an intellectual disability. Researchers estimate that 80 percent of intellectually or developmentally disabled (“IDD”) adults are un- or under-employed. Until recently, there were scant programs like the one Stevens went through at Opportunity Village that help IDD adults find jobs in the community, rather than inside institutions doing assembly-line or craft shop-type work. And in a city that runs on gaming, only one corporation in the industry, Station Casinos, participates in the Opportunity Village community employment program.
To understand why this is, one must ask uncomfortable questions: Are IDD staff members welcome at private establishments, whose profits depend on image control and customer satisfaction? Should employers be forced to pay at least minimum wage to people with disabilities when they require more training and hand-holding than other employees? And isn’t piece work, even if it pays less than the minimum wage, better than no job at all if it’s helping IDD adults be active, socialize and learn valuable skills?
As of today, there are no straightforward answers to these questions. Instead, there are the beginnings of slow progress toward a more equitable future. Similar to minority and LGBTQ activists, advocates for the IDD community believe equal employment opportunity is for all Americans, including Stevens.
“It really is part of the civil rights movement,” says Cara Paoli, the state’s head of aging and disability services. “We’re pushing things forward, trying to work with employers to teach the value of hires with disabilities. There’s so much that you can accomplish as a company by taking these individuals in. Right now, there just aren’t a lot of companies that realize that.”
My food service work experience is limited to six months at a Tastee Freez in high school, so the chaos and din of the huge kitchen in the back of Boulder Station’s Grand Café is new to me and, frankly, a little scary. But in a T-like intersection joining the areas where meals are plated, food is cooked and dishes are washed, Stevens remains unfazed as she dispatches loads of plates and bowls and glasses and cups that she’s just hustled in from the packed dining room.
Busing entails more than I would have guessed. Once dishes are picked up — the only part I see from my usual vantage point as a diner — and carried to the back, the remaining food and liquid have to be scraped off or emptied into the trash, and then the dishes are staged on a tall rack. From there, they’re sorted and placed on huge wheeled carts for delivery to the washing room, where an industrial, conveyor-belt operation moves them through several stages of sanitization.
“If it’s not busy, we’ll help get them started on the washing,” Stevens tells me, as she somehow finds time to give me a tour, despite an alarming number of dishes piling up back at her station. As I watch her balance the differently weighted responsibilities of clearing, cleaning and resetting tables with managing the flow of dishes back-of-house, it occurs to me that, college degree or not, I’d need some guidance to master this job. How did she do it?
“The training lasts anywhere from three to six months, depending on the individual and the job,” says Julia Hopkins.
Hopkins is the job coach for participants in Pathway to Work, Opportunity Village’s two-year-old vocational program that trains IDD adults on the job. Hopkins oversees up to five trainees at a time in Boulder Station’s Grand Café and internal maintenance department. They meet her each morning at Opportunity Village’s Henderson campus and take a bus together to the casino. There, Hopkins hands off food-and-beverage trainees to Betty Martin and janitors to Jesus Garcia. They spend five hours a day on-site, rotating through various jobs — busing, cleaning bathrooms, keeping slot areas tidy — under the direct supervision of Martin and Garcia. Hopkins floats, assisting and trouble-shooting where necessary. At the end of the morning, she rounds up the trainees and they head back to Opportunity Village for a couple hours of classroom work.
Several things can happen once a Pathway to Work trainee is deemed ready to work: He may apply for a permanent position at Boulder Station, if one is open; that was the case for Stevens, who’s now a full-fledged employee there. Trainees have also applied for — and gotten, in some cases — jobs at Palace Station and another Pathway to Work partner, Get Fresh produce distributor. Others have used their Pathway to Work experience to land jobs at Boca Park Animal Hospital, DiBella’s Flowers, Walmart and other businesses. If necessary, a job coach will continue to check in with an employed former trainee from time to time, to make sure everything’s going okay.
The state of Nevada funds Pathway to Work, which is a huge selling point that Stacy Carlston and Judy Swain use when they make their pitch to potential employer partners like Station Casinos. As assistant manager and manager, respectively, of Opportunity Village’s community outreach department, Carlston and Swain run several other programs besides Pathway to Work.
“Where else do you get to try out an employee for six months — for free — before you actually offer them a position?” Swain says. “And the person can be in Pathway to Work on a Friday, and start being a Station Casinos team member on Monday, all ready to go. They know the property. They know the job. They know all of the other team members. So it’s a very easy transition.”
Beyond that, the employer gets someone, like Stevens, who’s thrilled to be there.
“Not only are (Opportunity Village clients) good team members, but also they’re long-term team members,” says Maria Trejo, the team member relations manager who’s in charge of Pathway to Work at Boulder Station. “Vegas is one of those cities where there’s a lot of turnover, especially in the casino industry. Our Opportunity Village team members, they stay, they stick. So that’s a great tangible benefit.”
Even the more abstract, feel-good reasons to hire an IDD employee fit with today’s corporate social responsibility plans: serve underserved communities, help every individual fulfill his potential, match the right citizen with the right job.
Despite all this, staff from both Boulder Station and Opportunity Village had to overcome some fears and doubts. No other casino had participated in a program like this, and so much could go wrong. Trejo struggled, at first, to get buy-in from her team leaders, who would be key to the program’s success. But once the first group of five trainees, including Stevens, showed up, everyone’s fears were allayed.
“People worry that (IDD adults) will have a seizure, become violent or self-harm,” Opportunity Village’s Carlston says. “You know, the things you see in movies, honestly. … When they visit our job sites, they get to see with their own eyes what somebody with an intellectual disability actually looks like. It’s not like in the movies. They’re just like anybody else, and they want the same opportunities that we have.”
Moreover, Carlston says, every company that hires someone through her department reports the same thing: “Having this person employed here has changed our culture. They’ve lifted the mood in the whole department.” Trejo says another former Pathway to Work trainee now working at Boulder Station, Sam Sedgwick, walks the floor high-fiving his fellow team members, always with a cheerful greeting.
Stevens is more circumspect than Sedgwick. When I ask her what it was like, hearing that she’d gotten the busing job, a full-time position with benefits at a casino corporation, paying 50 percent more than her last job, she laughs, and then her eyes tear up.
“Very, very exciting,” she says. “A lot of paperwork to fill out, but very, very exciting.”
Life goes on
Stevens shifts back into single-word-answer mode when it comes to questions about her personal life. Small hints — her prematurely thinning hair and tired gaze, her remark about having to move to Las Vegas because her parents kicked her and her husband (then-boyfriend) out of their home — hint at hardship, but she’s not talking about that; she’s focused on today.
“This job has made it to where my husband and I ... like on our anniversary, we’ve been able to go see some of the shows here in Vegas,” she says. “We’ve been able to catch up on some bills that we have.” Moving into an apartment complex near the back entrance to Boulder Station means she can walk to work, but she and her husband are saving money for a car.
Independence is not a new concept for IDD adults, but it has seeped into different areas of society at different times. Jonathan Lucus and Nicole Jorwic, who lead employment efforts at The Arc, a national nonprofit for IDD individuals, tick off the milestones that mark a gradual cultural shift over the last few decades.
“There are people who call themselves the ADA generation — people with disabilities born after ADA,” Jorwic says, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed in 1990 and forbids employers from discriminating against people with disabilities in hiring as well as accommodations. “You are seeing more ‘typical’ kids going to class with kids with disabilities. They’re used to seeing them in their communities. You’re seeing them more integrated. That jumps into being comfortable with seeing them in the workforce.”
Lucus adds that The Arc invited the cast of Born This Way, an A&E reality series in which all the main characters have Down syndrome, to make a special appearance at its annual convention this year. The show reflects an evolution in societal norms since the early 1990s, when another TV show, Life Goes On, revolved almost entirely around the challenges a family faced with helping its one member with Down syndrome become part of the mainstream world.
“We’ve moved more from a paternalistic, medical model to a social model,” Jorwic says. “A job can be a linchpin to anybody becoming a successful member of the community. There’s a great deal of pride that they feel in having a paycheck, earning minimum wage, contributing to society.”
Policies have prodded the evolution along. Three years ago, with its blueprint for employing people with disabilities, the National Governors Association adopted the so-called “employment first” philosophy with a five-point strategy for cultivating skilled state labor forces. Then, President Barack Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which focused heavily on vocational rehabilitation and training for people with disabilities. Its final rules were issued this summer. Obama also issued an executive order to make sure that federal agencies are model employers, including hiring people with disabilities where possible.
Work goes hand-in-hand with education, and Josh Baker, assistant professor of special education at UNLV, says there’s been a coincidental evolution in educating IDD individuals over the last 40 years. Whereas the trend once was (and still is, in some places) to shunt them off to special-ed classes, new thinking favors integrating them as much as possible with other students. In 2013, Baker started Project Focus at UNLV, aiming to get young adults with intellectual disabilities a higher education.
“The world is inclusive, so why do we separate them?” he asks. “At 18, we talk about the least restrictive environment. I argue that’s college. So why do people with intellectual disabilities have to watch their peers go off to college, while they’re not allowed? That’s why these programs exist.”
He estimates there are 300 such programs nationwide, and that 200 are, like his, inclusive, meaning IDD students take the same classes as everybody else.
Sounds promising, right? Here’s a reality check: Baker’s program has 10 students. Pathway to Work has 15. That’s 25 people out of a population numbering in the thousands. What about the rest?
Opportunity Village clients run the gamut of disability, from those who need hands-on assistance to those, like Stevens, who can live and work independently. Corresponding to their varying abilities, the nonprofit has a range of programs that serve more than 1,100 people a month. One with the Clark County School District matches students with unpaid internship positions at other nonprofits around town. At employment resource centers on Opportunity Village’s three main campuses, clients are paid to complete contracts for jobs such as document shredding and button-making. The thrift store on Decatur Boulevard gives them the chance to work in retail. And service contracts with other institutions — McCarran International Airport and Nellis Air Force Base, for instance — put clients to work in a variety of jobs, from maintenance to food service.
“At the end of that spectrum, we have individuals who’ve gotten jobs at places like T-Mobile and TopGolf,” says Lynn Hunsinger, Opportunity Village’s director of program services. “We follow them along once or twice a month, supporting them to grow as employees, communicating with their supervisors, identifying advancement goals and making sure the other parts of their support system are coordinating.”
Despite their efforts, Hunsinger and other executives in her position across the country find themselves in a bit of a quandary because of the push toward more fully integrated community employment. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act discourages employers from paying IDD adults less than minimum wage, which is still common practice in cases where clients work on projects at a piece rate. Consider a document-shredding contract, for instance, which might pay workers per pound of paper processed, rather than per hour. Referred to by experts as “facility-based employment” or the “sheltered workshop model,” this type of project is typically done at an institution, in a cohort of fellow IDD employees.
“The sheltered workshop model has become somewhat passé,” says Lucus, of The Arc. “A lot of states are transitioning away from that.”
The potential for abuse is one reason, he says. Several watchdog groups track cases of exploitation; in one widely publicized example, Henry’s Turkey Service of Goldthwaite, Texas, was found guilty in 2013 of abuse and discrimination after forcing dozens of IDD men to work at an Iowa meat processing plant for $65 a month over nearly five decades.
This couldn’t be further from the situation at Opportunity Village, however, where clients are not just called “VIPs,” but also treated accordingly. While working together on projects, they receive amenities to make their time on campus beneficial and fun. It gets them out of the house and teaches them job skills in an environment where they can safely socialize with their peers.
The Arc’s Jorwic explains that the sheltered workshop model was considered innovative when it was introduced decades ago. Many strong, well-intentioned organizations continue using it with success, she adds.
“Our position is that we need to phase them out while protecting the interests of individuals who’ve been doing this and supporting themselves this way, possibly for decades,” she says.
Nevada is making some headway in this shift. According to Paoli’s data from the state’s Aging and Disability Services Division, 16 percent of the 2,528 intellectually disabled people served state-wide in jobs and day training programs in September were in integrated employment positions. In Clark County, the percentage is even higher — 20 percent.
Still, OV’s Hunsinger says, community employment isn’t for everyone.
“Our position is that there’s still a role for campus-based programs, because not everybody is able to be successful and independent in the community,” Hunsinger says. “Some of them need more support to develop their skills. As regulations like WIOA roll out, the state is trying to get clarification on the direction that needs to be taken with this. That’s an ongoing conversation we’re having. … But our goal is still to be able to provide programs that will allow every individual to benefit from the training and support we can give them. And when we can, through a contract, convert them to minimum wage, we do.”
After lunch with Pamela Stevens, I drop her off at her apartment complex and watch her wander, still sipping pensively on her soda, toward the building where I imagine her husband waits with tales of his day rounding up bad guys.
She’s a long way from my own younger brother, Lance Kyser, who was born with an intellectual disability in 1972, the same year as Stevens. When describing Lance to people, I sometimes say, “He’s like Forrest Gump. He looks totally normal, but after talking to him for a minute, you suspect something is off.”
Lance lives in his own house, but it’s just down the road from my parents’ farm in Roswell, N.M., where he was born. He’s availed himself of the scant services the town offers people in his situation, but has never held down a job for more than a couple years. He had a girlfriend for a while, but he’s alone now, dependent on my parents and his Social Security check.
I wonder how Lance’s life would be different if he had a place like Opportunity Village to turn to, and a generous supervisor like Betty Martin, who understands the importance of clearly and patiently repeating instructions until he gets them.
It’s reassuring to me to know that Martin is out there — and her boss, Maria Trejo, and their contact at Opportunity Village, Stacy Carlston, and all the other people fighting for equal opportunities for Las Vegans who are like my brother. I wonder what the future holds for the funding that makes their jobs possible. I hope it’s still there for the next generation.