Monday, April 17, 2006

Profiting From The Disabled

Stacey Strother Story

Nobody wants to hire a guy who has to go to the doctor all the time--or so W. Devin Sartin thought. Honorably discharged from the Army because of his asthma, debilitating migraines, and inflammation of his chest, Sartin, a veteran of the last Gulf war and the Panama conflict, managed to land an accounting job with a firm that graciously accommodated his many medical appointments. But when he was laid off for economic reasons, Sartin worried that his next employer might not be so generous. His expectations were low when he walked into Diversity Services, an employment agency based in New York City.

As it turned out, the agency specialized in providing work for those marginalized by the labor market because of disabilities, age, or sexual preference. Only about 30 for-profit agencies in the U.S. focus on placing workers with disabilities. And Diversity Services practiced what it preached. Sartin, 38, was pleasantly surprised to walk out with a temporary position as a payroll assistant at the agency, rather than at one of the client firms for which it finds employees. He has earned two pay raises in less than a year. "There is no issue with Diversity about my disability," he says.

Sartin is among more than 2,000 workers who have found temporary or permanent jobs in the past year through Diversity Services. Some 40% of those workers had disclosed a disability, ranging from schizophrenia to blindness. Founded in 1996 as part of a small company called Rainbow Staffing, the agency was inspired by the death of the sister of co-founder Jeff Klare. She died earlier than he expected from a serious illness after an employer forced her onto disability and cut her off from the work she loved. Stacey Strother, a former policy analyst for the city government, bought a 51% stake in Diversity Services in 2000 and brought the company under one name.

By expanding from helping client firms fill office support and graphics jobs to making placements in other fields, Strother boosted the agency's annual sales from $2.6 million to $7.8 million by 2004. Like other employment agencies, the company receives a percentage of the salaries of the workers it places in jobs from client firms.

To make sure that her employees' medical issues don't disrupt the work of clients who hire them, Strother quickly provides substitutes for any workers who become sick and have to take time off, giving clients a number where they can reach her around the clock. She pays the workers their full salaries on the days that they must be out, allowing them to use vacation days they have accrued. She understands their situation firsthand. "Because I live with depression, I empathize with candidates with disabilities," she says. "My job is to find the balance between the candidates' being able to demonstrate their professional abilities while giving the clients exactly what they need."

Kelly Thurston, a contracting officer for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York, regularly hires temporary office workers from Diversity Services. "If one temp doesn't work out," she says, "we tell Stacey, and she sends a new one."

Relieved of the stress of hiding their disabilities, workers such as Sartin express strong loyalty to Diversity Services and its clients. When he took a few days off recently because of a migraine, he says, he was paid and didn't worry that he would lose the job to another temp. "I didn't feel any stress at all about it," he says.