Individuals with Disabilities Return to Work Through Lifeworks Employment Program
A small group of six men and women with disabilities ranging in age from their 20s to 60s, including one Westwood resident, have returned to their jobs in June, after a two-year hiatus. Lifeworks, a Westwood based nonprofit, runs a collaborative employment program for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and has assisted the return of these employees to their job placement at Siemens Healthineers. The latter is a global medical technology company with a manufacturing facility in Walpole.
For the first time since March 2020, the group met at a Norwood location, boarded a Lifeworks van with Lifeworks staff, and took their five-minute commute to work. Upon arriving at Siemens Healthineers, they would find that their colleagues had put up a big welcome sign for them. They also found themselves returning to applause.
“We are grateful to have individuals from Lifeworks back on site, as they fill a critical role in supporting our packaging and shipping operations,” says James Driscoll, director of manufacturing for laboratory diagnostics at Siemens Healthineers. “Their energy and teamwork are positive contributions to our company and our operations.”
Daniel Burke, president and chief executive officer of Lifeworks comments on the "meaningful, sustained employment in a welcoming environment" that Siemens Healthineers provides and the excitement of the Lifeworks employees. “They are thrilled to be back. They love a paycheck. . . They will never say, but they love being valued and being part of a team. They are very happy there."
The job that this group is being welcomed back to consists of assembling hundreds of cardboard boxes. The boxes are created in Walpole for medical diagnostic equipment that will be shipped worldwide.
“It’s not an easy job,” notes Mr. Burke, describing the demands placed on the group. “They can do multiple sized boxes and multiple orders in a big day.”
As the group returns to work, they return to a task that requires some level of dexterity, the ability to perform a regular routine, double-checking of work, and meeting production goals and timelines. Lifeworks provides the workers with trainings, transportation, and on-the-job support as needed. Lifeworks is their employer who coordinates the program with Siemens Healthcare, and Lifeworks also provides each worker with benefits and a $15 per hour paycheck. The group of individuals are full-time employees of Lifeworks, but are “full members” of the Siemens Healthineers team, says Mr. Burke.
“It is a shining example of how local workforce initiatives and employer partnerships can make a difference in communities," he says of the collaboration with Siemens Healthineers.
Under a program that began around the 1990s, Siemens Healthineers contracted with the human services agency, Higher Energy, to provide employees to work in the Walpole manufacturing facility. In 2015, Higher Energy approached Lifeworks to take over the contract, as Higher Energy was closing its area office. Lifeworks agreed. Lifeworks now runs the program as Lifeworks Employment Services. The job retention rate of Lifeworks employees is more than 85 percent, higher than the typical workforce retention rate.
“One of the great evolutions of our business is that we do career planning for people we serve, and we help them identify what jobs they have interests in and skills for,” says Mr. Burke. “It’s no longer, ‘Take any job we can offer,’ but [we] identify the jobs they like." Mr. Burke adds, "They have choices just like all of us."
Skills, interests, and tasks preferred by the individual can vary. At Wegmans in Westwood, for example, a Lifeworks Employment Services employee may be a cashier, stock shelves, or clean floors. To work during the pandemic in such a setting sometimes required some extra training. For some Lifeworks employees working at essential jobs such as at supermarkets, time-off never happened. Early in the pandemic, Lifeworks provided education about mask tolerance and keeping six feet of separation. Employees who thrived on routine were coached to make adjustments as their routines changed. In this way, some employees worked through the pandemic.
“What makes a difference in life is that you are motivated by your job and valued by your employer. . . not because of sympathy, but because of who you are," says Mr. Burke.
Lifework's mission includes advocacy, empowerment and opportunity, notes Mr. Burke. Advocacy is focused on helping disabled individuals find work. Empowerment is about helping them make choices that can include saying, “no,” to a job offer. Opportunity refers to finding true community partners who are not simply looking for free employee supervision or cheap labor.
Lifeworks partners with businesses across Greater Boston. Opportunities for Lifeworks employees in Westwood have included working at three businesses on University Avenue, Home Goods, Home Sense and Roche Bros. Out-of-town group employment opportunities have included Moderna in Norwood, AmerisourceBergen in Mansfield, Babson College in Wellesley, Regis College in Weston, and organizations in Norton. Along with group employment arrangements such as the one with Siemens Healthcare, Lifeworks also coordinates numerous placements for individuals. Job duties have included food service, banking, health care, retail, manufacturing, among other tasks.
Community partners do not necessarily have to be employment partners. Lifeworks has a longstanding relationship with Xaverian Brothers students. Students have completed senior service projects at Lifeworks and the school has hosted a Special Olympics, hockey, and basketball program for people with autism. Mr. Burke also points to the support of parishioners of First Parish of Westwood. They regularly fundraise to help Lifeworks families in need.
"We are incredibly lucky as an organization to call Westwood our home. This community has been so supportive of us over the years," he says.
Thanks to Daniel Burke, president and chief executive officer of Lifeworks, for speaking with Westwood Minute.