More than a bargain

Compass clients, Kmart both profit from program linking workers, firms

By SHARON SALYER

Herald Writer

Look for him working in the garden shop, helping customers find products or assisting them with taking purchases to their car.

Most of all, look for Robert Halbig hustling, hustling, hustling, working in every way he can to make his customer’s Kmart shopping trip easier.

"He’s always running and getting things for customers," said Mark Ibsen, employment services manager for Compass Health. "He’s an example of somebody who may be seen as having tremendous barriers, but who excels at his job."

Halbig has a mild developmental disability and some problems with depression and anxiety. Through the Compass employment program, he was hired at Edmonds Kmart, where he has worked for two years.

While Halbig’s attention to the needs of his shoppers have earned him Employee of the Month and other commendations from customers, his employer has received recognition, too. It was recently nominated for Employer of the Year from the Governor’s Committee on Disability Issues and Employment.

Since March 1999, Kmart has hired seven Compass clients, who have developmental disabilities or current or past problems with mental illness.

The store’s openness to hiring Compass clients, flexibility and "normalizing work relations" is an example to other area employers, said Peg O’Mear, who, as a Compass employment consultant, often works with Kmart to help fill job openings.

"They’ve been very open to trying creative things," she said. "Say a person does have a period where they’re having a little difficulty with symptoms. Through coordination, we give the person the time they may need. They’ve been so kind when the person returns, letting them know that they are welcome back and missed."

Halbig, who formerly worked in maintenance and customer relations at the downtown Everett Olsen’s (now QFC) and has worked in filling stations, a car wash and at a hospital, said employers sometimes are hesitant to hire people with mental health disabilities.

"I think there is a little prejudice for a mentally handicapped person to be in a normal job," he said. "They sometimes look down on mental illness. Kmart has been great in supporting us."

O’Mear said she, too, has encountered resistance from employers as she attends job fairs to let businesses know of Compass’ job placement services.

Recalling a conversation with a hardware store manager, she said, "The minute they heard mental health, they said, ‘I’ve got forklift and dangerous equipment. ’ "

Mental health problems, she said, have sometimes been synonymous with "This person will not be safe" to have on the work site.

Over the past five years, there’s been a business shift toward increased support of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which bans employment discrimination against people with physical handicaps, or developmental or mental health problems, she said.

"What they’re concerned with now is what is that person’s typing speed or computer knowledge," O’Mear said.

The Compass employment program has placed clients in jobs as diverse as nurse, network administrator, landscaper, accountant, security guard, dishwasher and janitor.

Home Depot, McDonald’s, Alderwood Cinemas, Washington Mutual Bank and Husky Stadium are just some of the businesses coordinating with Compass to fill job openings.

Before applying for jobs, Compass clients are stabilized on medications and given several months of job preparation training, from how to work with fellow co-workers to eating well and getting enough sleep.

Compass employment consultants periodically check in with former clients and businesses that hire them.

"We can provide a kind of built-in employer assistance program for any clients we refer," Ibsen said. "We help them with any issues that may come up on the work site or to ask for any reasonable accommodations that they might need."

Halbig credits his workplace success with fellow employees who are willing to coach him and managers who are supportive.

The job "really helps out for the things you really need in life," he said, "whether it’s groceries, a pair of pants or a new pair of shoes."

And sometimes, he said, there’s even money left over for extras. "I like to spoil my wife by taking her out to dinner or buying her flowers."

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