Partnership helps disabled workers

Jenny Lancour | Daily Press Kenneth Peterson, of Escanaba, bags groceries recently for a customer at Elmer’s County Market in Escanaba. Peterson was hired to work at the local grocery store through a partnership between Elmer’s and Lakestate Industries that offers people with disabilities an opportunity to be employed in the community.

ESCANABA — Disabled individuals with barriers to employment who have skills to work are being employed through a unique partnership between Elmer’s County Market and Lakestate Industries.

For nearly a year, Elmer’s County Market and Lakestate Industries have been working together to place individuals with disabilities into jobs at the Escanaba grocery store, allowing them to work in the community and earn their own pay.

“It’s an opportunity for them to grow and be a part of their community and feel valued and earn that paycheck,” explained Cheryl Ohman, executive director at Lakestate Industries.

Lakestate Industries is a private, non-profit agency which serves to enhance the lives of people with disabilities by giving them the opportunity to work for “real pay” while removing barriers to employment within the community, said Ohman.

For years, Lakestate Industries has provided vocational career exploration, job development, work training and job services to its clients, many who work at the agency shredding documents for local businesses or making fire-starters and wooden furniture and other items for Lakestate to sell.

Through the recent partnership with Elmer’s, some of Lakestate’s clients have been hired at the local grocery store.

“Elmer’s is hiring people with disabilities to work part-time bagging groceries and stocking items in the frozen food department and doing other jobs,” said Linda Peterson, human resources director at Elmer’s.

Lakestate evaluates and trains potential Elmer’s employees in skills needed to work at the grocery store. Job shadowing is also involved in the training process.

Learning hands-on skills to do the work is important, but so is learning the “soft skills” such as being on time for work, regular attendance, and getting along with customers, co-workers and supervisors, said Ohman.

Each job candidate initially works 10 hours a week for four weeks at the store with their salaries being paid by Michigan Rehabilitation Services within the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

After four weeks, each individual undergoes an interview at Elmer’s and a decision is made on hiring the person, said Peterson.

“Basic reading and math skills, social skills, and job skills are needed,” she said, noting there are also age requirements. New hires undergo customer service training.

Kenneth Peterson, 23, of Escanaba — no relation to Linda Peterson — is among the candidates who have been hired on a permanent basis at Elmer’s.

He began working at the grocery store in April and said it’s been “really fun” bagging groceries, corralling carts, and handling returnables.

Linda Peterson commented, “It’s rewarding to see him participate and interact with his co-workers.”

Marilyn Noble, an employment specialist with Lakestate, works with Elmer’s to monitor and support those who are hired from Lakestate.

Rod Stende, general manager at Elmer’s, said, though not all new hires work out, the partnership program offers Lakestate clients hope for employment.

“Elmer was the guy who always wanted to give someone a second chance and help the community, including people with disabilities,” added Stende.

The late Elmer Dagenais is the founder of Elmer’s County Market, which has been serving the community for more than 70 years.

Ohman expressed her gratitude for the partnership with Elmer’s in helping to employ individuals with disabilities — a long-standing goal at Lakestate. She hopes the program catches on and more people with employment barriers are hired in the community.