When Terry Josefowicz hires employees to work in the front end of Jewel-Osco in St. Charles, she looks for someone with a good personality and communication skills who can offer a friendly smile to customers as they check out.
She found all those qualities in Geneva resident David Kelly, 27, who has worked in the front end of the store for six years.
But what sets David Kelly apart from most of the store’s employees is that he has Down syndrome. Josefowicz, the store’s front-end manager, said that hasn’t stopped Kelly from working hard and doing his job well for the past six years.
“They work hard, and they have a great work ethic,” Josefowicz said of the handful of store employees who have a developmental disability. “They’re all just so honest and open.”
Jobs such as the one at Jewel-Osco aren’t always easy to come by for people with developmental disabilities, said Kelly’s mother, Joelle Kelly. And Mayer Smith, business services representative for the Association for Individual Development, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to people with developmental disabilities, agreed.
Smith finds job opportunities for such employees, many of whom are from the Tri-Cities, and he said job opportunities have thinned out in recent years.
Smith said that’s due, in part, to a social stigma that’s sometimes attached to people with disabilities, as some employers falsely view them as poor workers. Another hurdle for disabled people in the job market is the economy, he said.
“There’s all kinds of issues going on in an economy that’s still jittery,” he said. “When [employers] started laying people off, this type of work was maybe the last thing left – the last chance to keep their employees busy without laying them off. So there’s been issues there.”
He said he usually can help potential employers move past the social stigma by bringing them into one of AID’s workshops and showing them the quality of work that’s being done by employees with developmental disabilities.
Miguel Alba, communications and public affairs manager for Jewel-Osco, said he encourages employers to overlook that stigma.
“I once heard a store director explain that we can train anyone to do the jobs we need, but the personality and desire to do the job can’t be taught,” he said. “These individuals are often the best employees because they’re motivated and happy to be there. Customers respond positively to them.”
Josefowicz said in her 27 years as a front-end manager, she has had few bad experiences working with people who have developmental disabilities.
And David Kelly said he enjoys helping bag groceries or corral carts, which is why he has stayed with the company for six years.
Joelle Kelly said her son’s job responsibilities have helped him become more independent – he makes sure his work uniform is clean and ready to wear the next day, sets him alarm and manages his work schedule.
“It’s a prize to have a job like this in David’s life,” she said. “It’s like winning the lottery.”
The benefits are far-reaching for employers, too.
Smith said it’s no more expensive for employers to hire people through AID than through a for-profit company.
A job that typically would take one person to do is sometimes split between two or three employees hired through AID, putting more people to work with no extra expense to the employer.
And employees still are getting a fair paycheck, Smith said, but that’s not the only thing they gain.
“There’s huge benefits to our workers because they want to feel a part of the community,” he said. “They want to be treated just like you and I. The best day is the day they get their paycheck because they earned it, and they’re very proud of it.”