By M.L. Dehm HBJ Freelance Writer
EVERETT — Bridgeways, a 30-year-old company that serves adults with mental illness in Snohomish County, has a new partnership with Compass Health to help more people who suffer from mental illness find jobs.
While unemployment numbers for the general population remain high — 7.9 percent in May in Snohomish County — unemployment numbers for the mentally ill are several times greater. There is more at play in this discrepancy than simply the economy, said Bridgeways CEO Donna Konicki. Employers are simply wary of hiring anyone with a history of mental illness.
“There is fear of the unknown,” Konicki said. “Certainly what you hear in the media, for the most part, is negativity. You don’t hear about the good stories.”
Most media stories center around people who have not been treated or supported for their condition, she said. The stories don’t focus on those who are going through recovery.
Supported employment for the mentally ill population is something that Bridgeways has done for many years. The partnership with Compass Health will expand access to that program.
Bridgeways offers manufacturing positions in their AS9100- and ISO 9000-certified production shop that supplies high-quality products to the aerospace, electronic and pharmaceutical industries. But the number and types of jobs are limited and they aren[‘]t suitable for everyone.
“Not everyone wants to do manufacturing work,” said Vicki Hofmann, Bridgeways’ director of employment services.
The company is now placing clients with employers in the community with the help of trained employment specialists. Employment specialists support clients but also help the business owner identify how these employees can benefit the business.
For example, some potential employees want only part-time work, especially those who are transitioning back into the job market. Konicki suggests that businesses that are thinking about hiring a full-time employee instead consider hiring two part-time workers who need mild accommodations. The business can save by not having to pay full-time benefits.
Bridgeways will explain the tax credits available to businesses that hire people with disabilities. But Konicki is aware that most businesses have reservations about hiring someone stigmatized by mental illness, whether it’s a veteran returning from military service or their next-door neighbor.
“Businesses just aren’t necessarily open to having someone work for them who might have a challenge, whatever that challenge may be,” Konicki said.
Many employers also are unclear as to the capabilities of someone with mental illness. They make the mistake of equating mental illness with a learning disability. The reality, Konicki said, is that many of their clients have above-average intelligence and can perform any task.
Business owners and managers also worry about the kind of accommodations they may have to make for this type of employee and whether it will cost more money. Often the accommodations are small and cost nothing.
Hofmann acknowledges that businesses want an employee who will get to work on time, dress appropriately, have interpersonal skills and get along with supervisors and co-workers. She said many businesses have the misconception that a person with mental illness lacks those core abilities, yet this is not true of those who are in recovery or on medication and returning to the workforce.
“We have a group of people who are ready, able and supported,” Hofmann said. “We have highly motivated employees and we can do background checks prior to that person starting a job.”
Employment is an important piece of a recovery plan for those living with mental illness of any kind, Hofmann said. It is revitalizing, provides purpose and a sense of worth, and offers the incentive to stay on a medication regimen and stay healthy.
One person who has had his life positively impacted by Bridgeways is Shaun Stephens. He has steady employment in the Bridgeways shop helping companies save money by refurbishing and repurposing materials.
Employment specialist Denise Burns has watched Stephens and other clients blossom on these jobs. Nothing would make her happier than if more companies would consider talking with Bridgeways and learning what the company could do for them.
“If we get an invitation to come into a factory, our employment specialists are very good at carving out a particular activity that might be appropriate for a (mentally ill) person,” Burns said.
Bridgeways also can identify ways a company could save money by hiring its clients.
Konicki hopes that businesses will contact Bridgeways and listen to employment suggestions simply because it’s good to help others.
“Everybody has to have a purpose to get up in the morning,” Konicki said. “What our supportive employment does is to give people a purpose to get up in the morning and hope for the future. If you’re a business and can do that for a person and it helps your business in the end, what a great thing to have happen.”
For more information about Bridgeways and its programs, go to www.bridgeways.org or contact Bridgeways director of development Jeff Patterson at 425-513-8213, ext. 132.