"Mini" Safeway trains people with disabilities

Flagstaff, AZ – William West is standing at the end of a Safeway check-out line, quickly stuffing groceries into paper bags. The customer today is particular, but friendly, asking for her eggs in a plastic bag, and requesting help out to her car. "I can do that, ma'am," William politely replies, as he pushes her cart away.

Just a typical scene at a local grocery store, right? Not exactly. William is a soon-to-be graduate of Flagstaff High School, and he's going through a unique new training program at Goodwill Industries in Flagstaff.

Goodwill and Safeway have partnered with Flagstaff Unified School District and several other agencies in Flagstaff to create an exact replica of a Safeway check-out line and grocery aisles, to provide hands-on job training for people with disabilities and other barriers to employment.

"We provide qualified workers to help meet business demands," explains David Hirsch, CEO of Goodwill Industries of Northern Arizona. "Safeway in turn has a commitment to hiring people with disabilities."

That commitment makes business sense for Safeway. Jessica Moran, District Manager for Safeway's Northern District, says people with disabilities make up just over 1% of their workforce. "Their retention rate is much higher than any other employee we have on board," she says. And "their overall pride and production levels are [also] some of the highest."

The "mock" Safeway in the Flagstaff Goodwill is actually the second training facility the grocery store has built. The first one was built about five years ago in Tucson at the Beacon Group, a nonprofit serving adults with developmental disabilities. That training center has placed 67 people in Safeway stores around Tucson, says Ethan Orr, Executive Director of Linkages Arizona, which works to build bridges between businesses and people with disabilities. Out of all those trainees, Orr says "only one has not made the cut."

The key, says Orr, is to have a good chance at a job waiting at the end of the training program. "I've never seen training programs created in a vacuum actually succeed," he says, "because there's no buy-in from the participants."

Here's how the Flagstaff training program works. Goodwill, the Flagstaff Unified School District, or Quality Connections, a Flagstaff nonprofit, provide the training at the replica Safeway. They teach trainees "hard skills," like bagging groceries, recovering carts from the parking lot, and restocking shelves. But job trainers also teach social skills, like making eye contact, smiling, and greeting customers.

Trainees then enroll at Coconino Community College for work readiness classes. John Cardani, Executive Director of Community and Corporate Learning at CCC, says students will learn "how to prepare for a job interview, how to dress appropriately when they come to work, and communication skills at the workplace."

Vicki Wachter, FUSD's Special Education Transition Specialist, says that kind of training is invaluable. For example, "We've found that some of our students are lacking in skills in tying a tie," she says. "All the bits and pieces that it takes to be a professional."

Everyone involved in the project calls it a "win-win." For a minimal investment, Safeway gets well-trained employees. Goodwill and other agencies get a state-of-the-art facility to teach real-world job skills with a good chance for a job waiting at the end. The hope is that the program will expand to include other businesses beyond Safeway.

Still, it can sometimes be a challenge to convince employers to hire people with disabilities. "The biggest thing," explains Ethan Orr with Linkages Arizona, "is the fear of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)." He says companies worry that "if I hire a person and then fire a person, am I facing a lawsuit?" Orr says the answer is "no," but there's often an education process with prospective employers.

Goodwill's David Hirsch also says the economic climate poses challenges. "Often people with disabilities are the last ones in and the first ones out as workforces get cut," he acknowledges. "They're now competing with people with college degrees for the same job, so it's a little bit tougher."

Private businesses also receive incentives to hire people with disabilities. There's a plethora of hiring credits, including a $2400 hiring credit. There are tax deductions for providing accommodations. But most importantly, says Ethan Orr, "They will be your best employees. They will improve morale."

William West says he'd recommend the training program for anyone. "I'm really excited," he adds, "to see if I have what it takes to do a new job that I haven't done before."