Providing jobs for people with disabilities brings kudos

To recognize the important role that organizations play in employing people with disabilities, the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation […]

To recognize the important role that organizations play in employing people with disabilities, the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation (MOHR) has chosen recipients for the Third Annual Outstanding Disability Employer Awards in 2019. The awards coincide with National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October, a tradition that dates back to a Congressional proclamation in 1945. 

“We applaud organizations in Minnesota that employ individuals with disabilities,” said Julie Johnson, president of MOHR. “They are pillars of the community who recognize the value of this largely untapped workforce.” MOHR represents more than 100 disability service providers across the state. Member organizations work with award winners. 

The winners are: 

Arby’s Twin Cities. Arby’s restaurants challenge their employees from Opportunity Partners by adding job responsibilities and promoting them when merited, said Ben Kopnick, Together Works Better coordinator with Opportunity Partners in Minnetonka. “They welcome people with disabilities as employees right away, working to integrate them in their workplace culture.” 

Rexanne Mullihan, area supervisor for Arby’s Restaurant Group, said the support from Opportunity Partners has been awesome. “They are here frequently in the beginning, helping out as needed and making sure that the new team member not only fits our needs, but that we fit their needs as well. 

Individuals from Opportunity Partners clean tables in dining rooms, greet and thank guests and engage them in conversation as they become more comfortable. Beverage, condiment and napkin areas are cleaned. Team members from the nonprofit also fill orders, work with slicers and fryers. 

Brunson’s Pub, St. Paul, is a neighborhood gathering place where the community comes to enjoy delicious food and drink, said Jim Freeman, employment services director for TSE, Inc. 

Smiling Brunson's employees

Brunson’s Pub

Pub co-owner Tom LaFleche helps push individual staff members supported by TSE to their limits, because he understands what their limits are, said Freeman. “They know they are part of the team and Tom and his staff have a good relationship with our job coach, as well.” 

TSE supports three individuals at the pub, two in cleaning positions and one as a dishwasher. A job coach stops in daily to check on their progress and coordinate with managers and staff. 

Even before the establishment opened in 2017, LaFleche was exploring how he might employ people with disabilities. “It’s been a lifelong dream, not just to open a restaurant and be successful, but to impact people’s lives in a positive way,” he said. 

Medtronic, Twin Cities. In providing community-based services to individuals with disabilities Rise has partnered with Medtronic for almost 40 years, said Nancy Hoff, Rise senior sales and marketing representative. 

Medtronic worker in clean room


Dozens of individuals have served Medtronic in roles including office specialists, component assemblers, shipping, receiving and warehouse clerks, equipment sterilizers and mini-truck delivery staff. 

“Medtronic counts on Rise workers and considers us as a ‘preferred/labor resource,’” said Hoff. The Fortune 500 company also sends contract work to production locations operated by Rise. Its teams build material return kits, collate and assemble training kits and assemble mailings. 

Janice Grendahl has worked for more than 30 years in several different departments at Medtronic. “I am never bored and have loved my work, no matter where they ask me to work or what my job duties are,” said Grendahl. “I have learned a lot and know they like my work.” 

Mille Lacs Wild Rice Corporation. “Mille Lacs Wild Rice embodies a work environment of acceptance and appreciation,” said Tammy Jo Johnson, executive director of Aitkin County DAC. “All staff who work there are treated equally.” The nearly 100-year-old business has a crew of six supported by the DAC. 

The group fills and weighs rice sacks, packs cases, labels items by hand and with equipment, heat seals, sorts and stacks product. They also assemble display cases with rice box contents and handle cleaning duties. 

Aitkin County DAC provides a job coach for the crew who has taught members to be dedicated, focused and proud of the work, Johnson said. There is fun and competition in the workday to exceed packaging goals. The supportive nonprofit also handles transportation for the crew. 

Mille Lacs Wild Rice staff and owners are in regular contact with team members to promote learning and express appreciation for them. 

Pizza Ranch, Elk River. “Pizza Ranch provides a very supportive and family-like atmosphere,” said Denel Bonine, an employment specialist with Options in Big Lake. Pizza Ranch has employed many individuals with disabilities over its eight-year relationship with the nonprofit. 

Happy Pizza Ranch employees

Pizza Ranch Elk River

“These guys are awesome,” said Denise McDonald, the who owns the restaurant franchise with her husband, Rob. They employ eight people with disabilities, many supported by Options. A former high school teacher, she previously worked with special ed students in the classroom. 

Individuals work in all areas of the pizza and fried chicken establishment, said Bonine. There’s the “front of the house,” bussing, food service and dishwashing. She said the restaurant is very good at training, identifying people’s strengths and areas of growth, communication, problem solving and natural supports. The latter refers to assistance from Pizza Ranch staff apart from job coaches and other help provided by Options. 

Pizza Ranch, Monticello. “Pizza Ranch has been a leader in taking on individuals with disabilities in terms of hire and for different work experiences,” said Ashley Nordlie, placement services manager with Functional Industries, Buffalo. Nordlie said the restaurant does an “impeccable” job of providing a successful environment for individuals to thrive. 

The restaurant has received many positive comments about staff members from Functional via its customer reporting system, said General Manager Allison Swartzer. 

“The community rapport and positives from staff are out of control. It’s been a great experience,” she said. “We never thought about it, but (determined) we could totally do this. It makes you think outside the box.” 

The restaurant recently celebrated the retirement of a staff member placed by Functional Industries who was with them since they opened, for eight years. Another person from Functional has a fan base of customers who ask for him regularly when they come in. 

RDO Equipment, Ada. The Norman County DAC has worked with RDO equipment for seven years. Eight individuals with disabilities currently work shifts at the business. “RDO has made the lives of the people with disabilities we support more full, because they feel included, important, and part of a bigger purpose,” said Hiliary Chisholm, DAC executive director. 

RDO employees holding award

RDO Equipment, Ada

“When working at RDO, they are not a ‘client’ doing ‘cleaning’ for the company. They are a friend, helping to get a job done.” 

RDO sells, maintains and repairs farm equipment and has customers from around the world. Located about 40 minutes north of Fargo in the Red River Valley, the Ada dealership is a medium-sized facility that is part of a larger company, said Store Manager Chris Willison. 

“We’ve had the same crew (from the DAC) for a while and they do a very good job,” said Willison. They clean the entire RDO facility, organize products on shelves, tidy up offices and perform other tasks. 

Target, Edina. Partnership Resources Inc. (PRI) has had teams of four individuals with disabilities and a job coach at the Edina Target store since 1997. Terri Bauernfeind, PRI program director, said, “The PRI team has seniority and longevity that is not usually found in retail. Every day, PRI team members know they are wanted and appreciated.” 

Target Store Manager Richard Dean said PRI workers display a passion unrivaled for their jobs and for shoppers. “They come to work every day to make Target a better experience for the guest through helping ensure the store is stocked, as well as helping guests find items.” 

PRI calls the Target partnership a “competitive and integrated setting,” which means PRI team members are hired directly by Target and work alongside other staff. PRI job coaches provide support. Raises are given annually, and the PRI team members all make considerably more than minimum wage. 

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