Braille Monitor                                              August/September 2014

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Blind Workers Deserve Fair Wages, Too

by Platt Allen III

Platt AllenFrom the Editor: On Saturday, July 5, 2014, President Maurer introduced our presenter to start off the afternoon session of the convention in this way:

“We have a person to make this presentation who is the chief executive officer and president of the Lighthouse for the Blind of Fort Worth, who administers a substantial program with one hundred employees, about 80 percent of whom are blind or visually impaired people. He has an extraordinary budget to manage. He has not only worked in blindness programs but has also operated his own business and has been active in his community while he has done it.

We have asked a number of people to join with us in our effort to get the idea across that a provision of law authorizing subminimum wage payments for disabled workers is a flawed piece of legislation, an error in the law, and fundamentally unsound. We have found a number of organizations in the disability field that have been willing to say that they oppose such a policy but very few who are employers. A number have said to us privately that they believe in what we're doing, but few have been willing to say so in a way in which they could be recognized and counted as joining with disabled Americans in a campaign to change this fundamental policy. But, in this case, we have a person who believes in the capacity of the people he employs and those who are part of the group represented, and it's an honor to welcome to our platform the president of the Lighthouse for the Blind of Fort Worth. Here is Platt Allen.”

Good afternoon. Thank you for the kind introduction. I think it's only appropriate that this topic comes on the agenda today following our grand celebration of our wonderful country's independence, and I know that our forefathers struggled with perceptions that others had of their capabilities and their desires, much like my employees back in Fort Worth have suffered with other's perceptions of their abilities and their desires. I'm sure many of you have also felt that struggle as you have pursued your dreams.

Let me address a few things up front. At the Lighthouse for the Blind in Fort Worth, fair wages are deserved by all individuals, and all my employees are compensated for their skills at or above the minimum wage. In my business the only people I'm going to take advantage of are my volunteer board of directors. I don't pay them; they choose to work for free, so I'm going to take advantage of every moment they are going to give me. If you're not doing that where you are, you should; it works out very well.

But at the Lighthouse fair wages are deserved by every person in our workforce: blind, sighted, tall, short, blonde, or brunette. It doesn't matter what you are; if you're working in my shop, you're going to be paid competitively.

Now before I go any further, let me first tell you about my lighthouse, and I call it my lighthouse because I have taken great ownership for what it is we are trying to accomplish in our community. I think this conversation will provide a good context for explaining why we do the things we do.

The mission of the Lighthouse is twofold: first, we provide opportunities for meaningful employment for folks who are blind. Second, we provide rehabilitation services to folks who are blind so that they may reach the level of independence that they desire. We were founded back in 1935, and in those beginning years we provided support for the military in winding bandages, cotton balls, and preparing for support of the military efforts. Yes, we made brooms and mops with twenty-five to thirty employees who were blind.

In the early 1970s we began the expansion of our product line and the number of people employed. Currently we have about 300 products in our catalog, and, as Dr. Maurer said, about one hundred employees, about 80 percent of whom are legally blind or worse. We recently purchased a machine shop and have converted two of the fourteen machine positions for operators who are blind. My plan is to have all fourteen machining stations operated with support from two to three sighted set up folks and a couple of shop helpers. This is a nontraditional business for agencies like ours, but we're up to the challenge and excited about the opportunities it will bring us in the commercial markets.

We offer a full range of benefits, including health insurance, dental and vision insurance, life and ADD, a 403B plan where we contribute 3 percent of every employee's wages to their retirement fund, and we will match up to 3 percent of any contributions they will make. Our average wage is $9.75 an hour, and most of our production workers work a thirty-eight hour work week.

In addition to our industrial operations, we also provide rehabilitation services to the elderly, adults, youth, and children in North Texas. Some of these services include Braille instruction, O&M training, and independent living counseling and instruction. We provide assistive technology services including technology need assessments, technology demonstrations, keyboarding classes, and other technology-based education and training. We have a CCTV loaner program and currently have ninety CCTVs out in our community aiding folks with low vision. We provide social activities for high-school-age teens, including a Valentine's day dinner and dance; we host a Christmas party for young people (and those young at heart) every winter. We provide tactile art classes, yoga classes, and general exercise classes. We have support groups for parents of children who are blind, children who are going through the process of losing their eyesight, adults who are blind or significantly visually impaired, and the elderly who are dealing with macular degeneration. All of our services and programs are provided free of charge to anyone who would desire to attend. The intention of these programs is to encourage independent living and the continued pursuit of each individual's dreams.

The Lighthouse is also a member of National Industries for the Blind and Texas Industries for the Blind and Handicapped (TIBH), which is the equivalent organization for the state of Texas. Both organizations assist agencies like ours in providing employment opportunities through access to federal and state procurement systems.

We also engage in commercial business, as you heard in my description of our machine shop, by providing manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution services to small and medium-sized businesses in our area. However, none of this would be possible if not for a dedicated, loyal, and enthusiastic workforce.

Now in my experience the fastest way to demotivate a person is to waste their time or pay them less than a competitive wage. A decade or so ago I have to admit that the Lighthouse decided to stop paying certificate wages, so if you look into that sentence, a little more than a decade ago, we were still engaged in the activity of 14(c) certificates. But about a decade ago we decided to stop paying employees based on the percentage of work that they can complete compared to a fully sighted individual. You all know the 14(c) law, so I don't need to restate it here, but just recognize that just because you can pay on a certificate doesn't mean that you should, and we have chosen not to.

I want to share with you a story about a young man who works on our paper packaging line. His name is Kurt. Kurt is legally blind, which resulted from a closed head injury. He spent his first thirty years in and out of underpaying jobs, living with his mom, and not really thinking much about his future. Through a work readiness program with the state of Texas, Kurt came to the Lighthouse for an evaluation. After about six weeks of working on various production lines within our operation, we provided our evaluation report and a job offer back to his counselor. Kurt now is a full-time employee with the Lighthouse. He has moved into his own house, has even gotten a dog. He travels independently to work, to the grocery store (where he used to work as a sacker), and even over to his mom's house for an occasional meal. Kurt is proud of his contributions to our community, and his mother is proud of him. Providing these types of life-changing opportunities is at the heart of our mission.

We are also motivated somewhat by NIB and their programs and opportunities they provide us as an employer of people who are blind. Last August the NIB board of directors issued a statement to all affiliated agencies stating that "The National Industries for the Blind endorses, promotes, and encourages the payment of at least the federal minimum wage for all employees who are blind." They went even a little further and restricted their grant money for us to develop new products, services, and programs within our agencies only to those agencies that are paying all of their employees at or above minimum wage. Currently, there are no employees working on AbilityOne products in any of the NIB-affiliated agencies being paid below minimum wage. That is something NIB is proud of.

So what do we do at the Lighthouse? We pay competitive wages, based upon a range that is determined by a third-party human resource firm that evaluates wages paid for similar positions within our local area. Blindness, hair color, girth, or height does not factor into the determination of the range. Blindness is no more a characteristic in these ranges and certainly is not a definition for our employees. The job description defines the qualifications and duties of the job; the individual determines how they can best accomplish the objectives of that job and calls upon our rehabilitation team and their production supervisor to make the reasonable accommodations to achieve those objectives. We as employers compensate our employees for their efforts against those objectives. If an employee is exceeding expectations in the position, they might very well be paid at the top of that range. If the employee is failing to meet the expectations, then they might be at the bottom of the range, with a corrective action plan. The level of compensation is set by the range and determined by the individual's performance.

At the Lighthouse we evaluate an employee's potential contribution. We identify a position that will allow that individual to reach that potential; we evaluate their progress toward that objective and competitively compensate the performance. Through this process we create a stable, loyal, and productive workforce. To me that sounds a lot like what every other employer in America strives to do. Our employees work hard every day to make progress toward their individual goals. In return the Lighthouse serves our customers in our community.

I'll share with you one more story about our newest employee, an individual that I think some of you in the room know. Bee, short for Bettina, came to Fort Worth with her husband, who is studying at the Southwest Baptist seminary. Both Bee and her husband are blind. Before her arrival in Fort Worth, Bee did what any other good job-seeking individual would do. She prepared a résumé, she sent it out to everybody she knows, she sent it out to everybody that those people knew. She contacted people through her church, her friends, and her friends' friends. By the time Bee arrived in Fort Worth, Texas, I had five phone calls, six emails, and two personal visits from people who'd gotten the word that Bee was coming to town, and she was somebody I should talk to. Bee had done her homework well. What I loved telling each one of these folks when they contacted me was that "Yes, I know that Bee is coming to town. We can't wait for her to get here. We want to talk to her.” Bee had contacted us as well. We were excited about talking with her and in understanding how the community we serve could benefit from having Bee on our team.

Now Bee did join our team just a little while ago (earlier this year), and she coordinates our fitness classes, our yoga classes, and is working on specifications for a rock climbing wall to be installed in our warehouse. She travels out into the community to work with individuals in retirement centers, community centers, and individuals in their homes, to teach them skills to improve their health. She also visits local elementary, middle, and high schools to teach partnered running and walking. She's even learned to roller skate. I'll now give a shameless plug: if you go out on our Facebook page—Lighthouse for the Blind of Fort Worth—you will find a video of Bee doing a slalom course on roller skates with her cane. It's one of the most amazing things you will ever see; it's a fantastic demonstration of independence.

This month Bee will compete in not one but two CrossFit competitions. Bee is an excellent example of any individual, blind or sighted, that you can accomplish anything that you set your mind to accomplish. Bee lists earning her CrossFit level I instructor status as one of her greatest accomplishments. By the way, she is the only CrossFit level I instructor in America who is blind, and she works for me! I'm proud of that. But this is a terrific personal accomplishment and a testament to her can-do attitude. Some of her most fulfilling moments have come since she joined the Lighthouse team, because she can now show someone that they can accomplish anything that they want to. One of my favorite things to hear her say as I walk past her meetings with clients is "Hey, you can do this. Just look at me," and it doesn't matter what the topic is because she truly believes that anything that you put your mind to you can accomplish. And we agree!

Now I will leave you with this final thought: we are all learners and teachers and users and contributors. For the contribution that our team makes as members of the workforce of Fort Worth, we believe they should be paid competitively and would hope that our success would serve as evidence that, for us, fair and competitive wages improved our workforce and our business. Thank you for the time to share a little bit of our story with you, and I invite each and every one of you to come to Fort Worth--maybe not all at the same time--to take a tour of our operation, to meet some of our team, and maybe even to take a class from Bee.

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