Story by Garrett Gavenus
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Community Integrated Services (CIS), a nonprofit organization that helps persons with intellectual disabilities enter and succeed in the workforce, has laid-off a large portion of its staff.
“A lot of businesses shut down, we did have to lay off a lot of staff initially” Kelly Soltis, a manager of employment services at CIS, said. “A lot of our participants were also laid off.”
Currently, a small staff of job coaches help nearly 400 clients navigate every aspect of getting and keeping a job. Participants in the program receive personalized assessments, training, and continued support as they enter the workforce.
A participant’s journey at CIS begins with a recommendation, usually from a supports coordinator — someone in a school system, hospital, or family support services who can make a referral to an agency like CIS.
While CIS’ participant and staff numbers have recovered since the height of the pandemic, the organization is still at roughly half of its pre-COVID capacity.
“At the beginning of 2020, we were supporting around 800 individuals,” Soltis said. “At the height of the pandemic that number had dropped to between 100 and 200.”
COVID-19 and social distancing measures posed serious challenges for CIS. Clients and coaches could no longer meet in person. Staffing was cut significantly, and the remaining employees found themselves wearing multiple hats throughout the day.
Job coaches who had previously been driving participants to and from work were now coordinating Uber rides and ensuring program participants had the PPE they needed, Soltis said.
In response to the changes COVID brought about, Soltis helped develop and implement the organizations SAFE program, a series of trainings and resources that helped CIS participants understand COVID-19 and adapt to new safety requirements. CIS has also been hosting weekly virtual meetings for participants and their families to address concerns and answer questions.
“A lot of what we deal with is helping participants understand what COVID is,” Soltis said. “It’s helping them understand that these protocols are there to help them and their families be safe, not because they did anything wrong.”
Still, many parts of CIS’ process stayed the same. For instance, to connect CIS participants with the right jobs, staff assess participants’ interests, strengths, and individual goals.
“The assessments are all based on the individual’s interests, work history, and skills,” said Diana Hofner, another manager of employment training at CIS, said. “It’s a way for participants to try out different types of work that maybe they wouldn’t have tried before.”
CIS builds an individual plan for each participant; there is no one-size-fits all approach, Linda Gonzalez, also a manager of employment training, said.
“It’s important to match a client to a work setting that makes sense for them, not just a job for the sake of a job,” Gonzalez said.
Plans identify an individual’s specific skills and the kinds of jobs and employers where they might excel. For instance, someone with good communication skills may have a plan focused on getting them into a customer service job, Hofner said.
Once participants are in the workplace, they are assigned a job coach. Job coaches act as mentors, on-site advisers, and generally help with the transition into the workforce.
A job coach might have as many as 10 participants assigned to them at a given time, so their schedules can be packed, depending on what an individual client needs. Job coaches do everything from coordinating transportation to accompanying participants on the job.
“On a typical day, a job coach will have one or more job coaching shifts,” Hofner said. “Depending on the needs of the individual, we provide support to help them succeed in their jobs. Some people require more support, maybe they need physical support or help communicating, or maybe they just need monthly check-ins.”
While some companies in the Philadelphia-area do partner with CIS to create positions specifically for CIS’ clients, individuals are usually competing for jobs on the open market.
“The whole idea is competitive employment,” Hofner said. “We’re giving individuals who might have barriers to employment an extra push to be able to work in a competitive job.”
Because CIS specializes in helping individuals with disabilities transition into the workforce, they have a special team focused on those who are just graduating from school. Participants under the age of 21 are assigned to CIS’ Transition Support team, which works in coordination with school systems to prepare students for jobs after graduation.
Virtual engagement has replaced regular classroom meetings this past year and has suffered from much the same problem that schools across the nation are reporting: a marked decrease in engagement.
“The failing rates are really high right now, but it’s trying to figure out why” Meghan Stephens, a transition adviser who recently left CIS to work at a Mastery Charter School, said.
Stephens noted many students are in homes with multiple siblings who are also trying to access and participate in online learning.
In response, Stephens and others in the school districts and at CIS have worked hard to create a virtual learning environment that more closely resembles in-person labs students attended before COVID. These programs are designed to help students transition into the workforce.
“Historically, we would take [students] out of school to do community-based services,” she said. “Now, we’ve had to create a transition lab in the school to mimic and mock what skills they would learn in an internship setting.”
The class of 2021 is preparing to graduate in May and enter into the workforce with the support of CIS job coaches. Transitioning students receive the same support as regular CIS clients after they graduate, including job coaches and the community-based opportunities.
“One thing that’s been the most encouraging the past few months is how many students who are leaving school this year are leaving school already having a job,” Stephens said. “It’s not just that they’ll be lined up to get a job, they’ll already have a job, which is a big deal.”
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