The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory recently hired three individuals through a program that helps those with developmental disabilities find employment.
The three employees with developmental disabilities were placed in the lab’s engineering and physical biosciences departments as well as its National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center. Through Project SEARCH, developmentally disabled individuals receive training and assistance from a job coach to prepare them for their new positions.
The three employees perform clerical and administrative work, but Kem Robinson, director of the lab’s engineering division, said Berkeley Lab might hire developmentally disabled individuals to work as lab assistants in the future.
Robinson partnered with East Bay Innovations — an organization that assists those with developmental disabilities in Alameda County — after his son graduated from Project SEARCH. The lab hired four temporary employees in August and October last year. Ultimately, a lack of funding resulted in just three permanent hires.
“The significance is really breaking the barriers,” said Lady Idos, senior analyst for the diversity and inclusion office at the lab. “We have to think of ways to include that part of our population.”
After nine months of unpaid internships at various East Bay organizations, four individuals within the program signed on as temporary paid employees at the lab. About nine months later, three were hired as permanent employees.
In California, individuals with developmental disabilities face a 92 percent unemployment rate, according to a 2013 report published by the State Council on Developmental Disabilities. The average annual wage for the demographic is less than $6,000.
“Of the 8 percent that are employed, half make below the minimum wage,” said Lori Kotsonas, director of employment services at Project SEARCH, citing the report. “It’s been a long battle to help people with developmental disabilities to receive meaningful and equitable pay in our community.”
Project SEARCH aims to place individuals with developmental disabilities in the health care and public sectors for better pay and benefits. East Bay Innovations’ executive director Tom Heinz said the organization helped facilitate the establishment of Bay Area chapters of Project SEARCH, which is based in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Heinz recalled one of the project’s first successful placements at Children’s Hospital Oakland.
“This lady worked at a fast-food restaurant in Berkeley for 20 years at minimum wage with no benefits,” he said. “She was on the autism spectrum and had high ability to focus on details.”
She was hired in materials management at the hospital, where she received an hourly wage of more than $20.
The program at Children’s Hospital has seen seven graduating classes of developmentally disabled individuals. Alameda County’s chapter has seen four.
“I honestly don’t think we should stop here … We shouldn’t be an exception to the rule,” Idos said. “This is something UC Berkeley could take advantage of.”
Contact Sonja Hutson and Arielle Swedback at [email protected].