LeeAndra Nagel (right), of Everett, delivers mail around the Snohomish county campus on Nov. 10. Nagel has worked at the county since 2000. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

‘Prove them wrong’: They are disabled — except on the job

EVERETT — Everybody seems to know LeeAndra Nagel as she zips through the halls of government.

In an electric wheelchair, the Snohomish County employee rolls through office buildings to deliver mail. Then she dashes over to the courthouse to continue her daily rounds. All the while, she carries on a friendly banter with security guards, receptionists and sheriff’s deputies.

“I love my job,” Nagel said. “I’ve wanted to do office work since I was in high school.”

“I have lots of friends around here.”

Before one of her mail runs last month, Nagel demonstrated another task at her desk on the fourth floor of a county office building. It involved assembling packets about long-term elderly care.

Nagel has worked at the county since 2000. She’s now part of the supported employment program. Started less than two years ago, it’s modeled after the city of Seattle’s long-term efforts to match disabled employees with meaningful work.

Applicants work with a job coach and must be clients of the state Developmental Disabilities Administration, which serves people with severe, chronic conditions that originated at birth or early in life. Nagel has cerebral palsy — the result, she said, of her umbilical cord being wrapped around her neck at birth.

At the county, supported employees earn competitive salaries well above the minimum wage. They work at least 20 hours per week and receive regular benefits. They begin as entry-level office assistants, but can move up.

The county now has five supported employees and plans to grow that number, said Sue Anne Lemkin, the program coordinator.

“I go to the departments to see what their needs are, to see what a supported employee might be able to do,” Lemkin said. “Ideally, the job coach would fade in support.”

Three of the county’s supported employees are at the Public Works Department, where the initiative began as a pilot project.

Joe Godfrey’s can-do approach has made him a standout since he was hired this summer. He started working part time on computer-mapping projects for Public Works’ Surface Water Management Division, but recently became a full-time employee.

A stroke at birth left Godfrey non-vocal with limited use of one hand. He converses by tapping out messages on his cellphone or a computer.

During an interview, he wrote on his computer screen: “My obstacles are very limited compared to some.”

Godfrey works at a stand-up desk. Much of his job involves using software to overlay historical maps with more recent data. The work is crucial for channel-migration studies, which examine how rivers move over time.

A hard-copy map is scanned, scaled and superimposed onto a contemporary image. Godfrey has to match points within 10 feet. That can be tricky, as rivers, roads and other features can shift over the course of decades. Some old aerial images are warped, having been photographed from planes that were flying unsteadily.

Godfrey’s cubicle is adorned with bibs from 5k and 10k races. He said he did the “Big Climb” up the stairs of Seattle’s tallest building, the Columbia Center, in 14 minutes and 41 seconds. He’s planning to do a 12k race this spring and eventually complete a half marathon.

Brenden McLane, a computer-mapping analyst in the next cubicle over, calls him “just another member of our team.”

“Honestly, it’s been a pleasure,” McLane said. “He’s proven super useful and he always has a super great attitude. He learns really quickly. He asked a lot of questions at first but now he’s more independent.”

As it turns out, the two co-workers attended the same elementary, middle and high schools, McLane a couple of years earlier. They didn’t know each other until they started working side-by-side.

Godfrey graduated from Snohomish High School in 2009 and went on to get an associate degree from Everett Community College. Pinned above his desk is a picture of Tuck Gionet, a Snohomish High School civics teacher and track coach who died of cancer last year. Godfrey credits Gionet with pushing him as a runner and sparking his interest in geography.

Godfrey typed into his phone: “I know he’d be proud.”

He pointed to himself and typed more: “He wanted people to succeed.”

Better division of labor

The Governor’s Committee on Disability Issues & Employment recognized Snohomish County in October as its 2016 Public Employer of the Year. Program coordinator Lemkin was honored as its employment support professional for 2016.

Lemkin credited retired human resources director Bridget Clawson and Stuart Torgerson, a retired human services manager, with laying the groundwork for the program.

Long before the county began looking into supported employment, it contracted with staffing agencies to match disabled workers with jobs. The Auditor’s Office has five part-time workers in its vehicle-licensing office, whose duties include opening envelopes and sorting checks. That program has been in place since the 1990s.

When establishing the new program, Snohomish County looked to the city of Seattle. Heather Weldon started the Emerald City’s supported employment efforts in 1998. As manager, she has watched the initial pilot project grow to more than 100 employees. She now fields calls from around the country and far-flung locales such as England, Switzerland and Kuwait. She’s been in touch with Microsoft and other companies as they established their own supported employment programs.

“This is a very stable population of employees,” Weldon said. “They tend to get into a job and stay in it. It tends to reduce the turnover of entry-level jobs.”

Several of Seattle’s supported employees are coming up on 15 to 20 years with the city, she said. The majority do office work, handling tasks such as delivering documents, scanning or shredding. They restock office supplies and archive maps. A smaller number work in warehouses or on grounds crews.

By bundling entry-level tasks, they can save professionals up to 20 percent of their workday that they otherwise would have spent doing specialized work.

“It’s a better, more cost-efficient division of labor,” Weldon said.

She touted the benefits for disabled employees and their co-workers.

“In the workplace they build relationships with people who aren’t paid caregivers — they’re natural relationships,” she said.

‘I’m a fighter’

With a disability, finding work becomes much harder. Nationally, only about 20 percent of disabled working-age adults have a job. That compares to more than 68 percent for people without a disability, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The state’s Developmental Disabilities Administration reports far better numbers, with about 65 percent of Washington’s developmentally disabled adults in the workforce.

James Oliver knows the frustrations of the job search. The Stanwood man, who has cerebral palsy, started looking for work after graduating from The Evergreen State College in 2007.

“If you don’t have those years of experience, then how do you get the job? It’s like a Catch-22,” Oliver said. “When I was first trying to get office jobs, it was difficult because I had the skills but no real experience.”

An internship with the Washington State Bar Association helped him get his foot in the door. He later found a job in the Snohomish County Clerk’s Office through Work Opportunities, a local nonprofit employment agency.

“You either prove them wrong or you curl up in a ball and feel sorry for yourself,” he said. “I’m a fighter.”

The tenacity of the job coach also helps, he said.

Oliver was at the clerk’s office about four years. He was out of work for a year before returning to the county in March, when he joined Public Works’ Engineering Services Division.

Oliver has been scanning stacks of field books, bound notebooks that surveyors use to sketch and take notes. They date back to 1883. The county produces a couple of hundred per year and must retain them as permanent records.

“I look at it as one field book at a time,” Oliver said.

Before he and a co-worker started scanning, the county took on that work only sporadically, through temps or injured staff on light duty.

“It’s a lot of work converting those to electronic data format,” public works director Steve Thomsen said.

Incorporating the workers has been “a discovery process” figuring out what works, Thomsen said. He’s pleased to see the supported employees finding their niche.

“You’re trying to match the skill set to the need,” he said. “Not the old model: ‘Let’s try to find something for this person to do.’”

Oliver graduated from Stanwood High School in 2003. He’s living in town, on his own, and commutes by bus to work. It takes him about 40 minutes in the morning. On the way home, transfers make it an hour and 15 minute slog.

Goals and dreams

Oliver isn’t just a supported employee — he’s an advocate. He serves as co-chairman of the county Developmental Disabilities Advisory Board. He also volunteers at the Stanwood Public Library.

Through his job, he hopes to achieve other goals in life. They include buying and training a service dog. Eventually he’d like to travel abroad, to Spain and other countries.

Nagel also is working toward her dreams.

She’s been married for two years and hopes to buy a house soon. When chatting with co-workers, she shows off pictures of Joy, her 2-year-old chihuahua.

Candie Hill, the County Council secretary, has known Nagel for years. They used to work together in the county mail room.

“She’s friendly and she’s outgoing and she’d do anything to make my job easier,” Hill said. “Very competent. Usually has a smile and a funny story to tell me.”

Nagel has been working since her days attending Everett High School, where she graduated in 1995. For a few years before arriving at the county, she worked at a Tony Roma’s restaurant folding napkins and wrapping silverware. It wasn’t her ideal job, even if it did include the perk of free ribs.

She’s content at the county.

“That’s what I like to do — I like to work and I’d like to retire when I get old,” she said.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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