Julie Propp landed her first-ever job about 18 months ago — at age 55.
A part-time retail helper at a Kwik Trip convenience store in Marshalltown, Iowa, Propp cleans and ensures coffee cups and other items are well-stocked. She previously loaded boxes in workshops run by agencies that help disabled people but never had a traditional job because of a developmental disability.
She prefers her current gig. "It's more money down there and more hours," says Propp, who earns $10.90 an hour and will soon get a bump to $11.25. "Some customers are so nice."
With the low 4.1% unemployment rate making it tougher for employers to hire and retain workers, more are bringing on Americans with disabilities who had long struggled to find jobs. Many firms are modifying traditional interviews that filter out candidates with less-refined social skills and transferring some job duties to other staffers to accommodate the strengths of people with disabilities.
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"In a tight labor market, employers who usually might not hire some of these people are reaching (deeper) in the queue," says Harry Holzer, a public policy professor at Georgetown University.
Kwik Trip launched its program to place people with disabilities in retail helper jobs in 2013. About half of the company's 634 stores in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin have such workers. Turnover for retail helpers was just 9% last year compared to 45% for all part-time employees, says Joalyn Torgerson, Kwik Trip's return-to-work coordinator.
Propp is "always looking for more stuff she can do," store Manager Sheila Earney says.
Advocates for people with disabilities say recognition of their value in the workplace is long overdue, and they hope employers' current hiring need spurs a more enduring shift. The share of working Americans who are disabled was still small at 3.2% last year, but that was up modestly from a range of 2.9% to 3.1% from 2011 to 2016, according to the Labor Department.
"There's a growing cadre of companies that look at people with disabilities as an untapped talent pool," says Carol Glazer, CEO of the National Organization on Disability. "When people spend their entire lives solving problems in a world that wasn't built for them, that's an attribute that can be translated into high productivity in the workforce."
The portion of working-age disabled Americans who are employed averaged 29.3% last year, up from 26.8% in 2013, figures from the Labor Department and Moody's Analytics show. That's still far lower than the 73.5% of non-disabled Americans who were working, though the latter has not increased as sharply. The unemployment rate for disabled people is 8.8%, down from 16.9% in 2011, but more than double the U.S. jobless rate.