At Coast Village Vons, Workers Bring Courtesy and Care

In the Montecito Vons, there are currently four workers who qualify as “disabled” and came to work at the grocery store through a training program. Along the way, they’ve inspired both customers and co-workers through their hard work and dedication.

Two of these employees are Amy Petersons and Steve Krauskopf, who have each been working at Vons for a year. Like any typical person, they have their good and bad days, but they value their job greatly. “I’m loving it,” says Amy, who was born with cerebral palsy, a disorder caused by a brain injury that occurs during pregnancy or birth.

Amy has not let her diagnosis slow her down. She has held numerous jobs with the YMCA, Santa Barbara Medical Foundation and Westmont College. She also works once a month helping care for other people with cerebral palsy. “I push them in their wheelchairs and feed them and I get paid for it,” she says proudly.

Steve worked previously doing gardening as well as other general duties. He plays various sports such as softball and hockey, and he swims. He recently won a Special Olympics medal that was posted in the manager’s office at Vons.

Many of the disabled employees came to Vons through Work Training Programs, Inc., a Santa Barbara-based organization that was founded in 1964 and currently serves more than 1,800 clients across four counties: San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura. Its mission is to provide independent living and employment support services.

“Work Training Programs appreciates employers like Vons, who make the extra effort to employ people with disabilities, and who have embraced the opportunity to have such dedicated individuals as part of their organization,” says Cindy Burton, president and CEO of Work Training Programs, Inc. “For individuals with disabilities, employment is vital to independence, empowerment and quality of life.”

It was through Work Training Programs that Amy and Steve came to be Vons courtesy clerks. At times, some shoppers are unaware of their disabilities. “I had one woman come up to me very upset and complain that one of our courtesy clerks didn’t bag her groceries the way she had specified,” says Lonn Justus, the store manager. “She said she had explained it several times and it still wasn’t done exactly the way she asked. I gently pulled her aside and told her that the courtesy clerk she was complaining about was disabled. She grabbed my arm and with a horrified look in her eyes said, ‘I am so sorry. I feel like such a jerk.’ I explained to her that her directions probably flustered the clerk. We have had several customers give us positive feedback on our disabled employees.”

In the process, the disabled employees have inspired fellow workers to respect their duties. “One of our clerks who does not have a disability asked how to get a promotion,” Justus says. “When I explained to him what it took, he commented, ‘I don’t feel I have the same dedication that Amy has.’ I told him he should learn from her and step up to the plate to get promoted.”

Hiring disabled employees is nothing new for Justus. In one experience, a 17-year-old boy whose congenital birth defect had left him with an arm missing came into Vons asking whether the store was hiring. Justus says he told the boy to fill out an application and return for an interview.

“When he left, the checkers said he looked very sad as if he figured he wouldn’t be given an opportunity because of his disability,” Justus says. “After he turned in the application, I set an interview up with him. He showed up on time, we had a good interview, and I gave him a job as a courtesy clerk. He is still at the store after a year and a half and is a fabulous employee. He can do things as well as a typical person can, like lift heavy boxes because he has adjusted to his disability. He handles his expanded duties with enthusiasm. The customers would always comment to me how they were happy to see someone give this young man an opportunity.”

According to a Dupont study, performance levels for employees with disabilities are consistent with those of their non-disabled peers. Although Vons has hired several disabled employees at its Montecito branch, store managers are under no pressure to do so.

But there are incentives. An employer will receive tax credits as well as funding and support for on-the-job training. The California Department of Rehabilitation created a Workplace Solutions website dedicated to providing information and creating staffing solutions to prospective employers – www.rehab.cahwnet.gov.

October is Disability Awareness Month and the Montecito Vons is being recognized by United Cerebral Palsy/Work, Inc. for hiring employees with disabilities. It’s an arrangement Justus considers a win-win situation.

“They are some of the best employees I have,” he says.