Like so many area businesses, Covington Box & Packaging can’t find enough workers to keep pace with demand from its customers. What it has found is a new source of help: two teams of workers from Easterseals Arc and Easterseals RISE.
Since September 2021, these teams have helped the Waterloo company keep pace with an undiminished stream of orders from other businesses that count on the packaging made by Covington Box.
On her first day working at Covington Box, Ashley, one of the Easterseals Arc participants, looked a little surprised when bags of popcorn – a regular treat the company provides on Fridays – were passed around.
“They had you at popcorn,” joked Larry Geans, a supervisor at Easterseals Arc who works with participants at Covington Box.
Ashley laughed and told him that what really impresses her is the money she’ll make. She listened as he estimated how much money she might bring home from her part-time work there.
“Are you for real?” she exclaimed. He assured her he was serious.
Ashley is part of a supported work group from Easterseals Arc. Four people each weekday work from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., in a shift that includes a lunch break. All come from the Projects Drive Group at Easterseals Arc.
At the same time, Covington Box is the host for a second group of Easterseals participants in an Employment Readiness Academy. Six people participate in the ERA; their schedules are staggered, so that four participants are there each day through the eight-week program. They learn general workplace skills while rotating through different jobs at the plant and gaining valuable hands-on experience. A standout in the ERA or the supported work group could have an inside track to being hired directly by the company.
“If they’re comfortable in this culture and this environment, and a job is something they can perform, I would be interested in hiring them,” said Covington Box President Tony Fifer. “My hope, and I know I speak for my supervisors on this, is that we can hire a few of them.”
Plenty of businesses have an ERA or a supported work group. But staff members at Easterseals Arc don’t remember a time when an employer has had both a supported work group and an ERA at the same time.
“Having the partnership with Easterseals has really helped us,” Fifer said.
The Covington Box partnership – and other relationships with area businesses – also is great for Easterseals Arc network participants. Easterseals Arc network staff see employment in the community as an important part of participants building fulfilling lives for themselves.
“It helps them contribute,” said Suzanne Vertigan, workforce development supervisor at Easterseals Arc. “It gives them a sense of worth. … Earning money for the work that you do then translates into buying things and being more self-sufficient. People who are employed have meaningful relationships. They have a sense of purpose. It fosters independence. It fosters increased communication and friendships.”
Geans, who supervised the supported work group that day, said adjusting to working in the community is made easier by consistently friendly and helpful workers at Covington Box.
“The people here are great,” he said.
Fifer is already a believer when it comes to hiring people with disabilities.
“I know we have Kenny, a direct hire. He was once with the RISE program, and he’s now been with us for 19 years. We have Phil. Phil came through the RISE program, and he’s probably been on board with us close to 15 years.”
Based on experience with Kenny and Phil, other workers in his shop “embrace them, train them and work alongside them. They don’t look at them as being any different than themselves,” Fifer said. “You’ve got to be open-minded and give them an opportunity.”