Melinda Kowalski Now Operates a Forklift
The successful collaboration between OfficeMax (OMX) and the Maryland Department of Education’s Division of Rehabilitation Services (DORS) began with a trip to South Carolina. In 2008, a team of OMX executives, including Elkridge, Maryland Operations Director Hank McDonald visited an Anderson, SC distribution center to learn about an initiative to hire employees with disabilities.
Hank was impressed, and when OMX Human Resources (HR) Generalist Jani Burns transferred to Elkridge from another OMX distribution center in 2009, the two made promoting a similar initiative a priority in Elkridge. Jani set out to find a partner organization. She found DORS; Maryland’s state vocational rehabilitation (VR) program. DORS offers a wide variety of VR services to Marylanders who have disabilities and want to work or keep a job.
In July of 2010, DORS Business Specialists, Jody Boone, Darlene Peregoy, and Christine Franklin met with Jani and Hank, and conversations began about how the two organizations could work together to find prospective employees for the OMX distribution center. Jani was quickly sold on the partnership. “I liked what they had to say; they weren’t just checking off boxes…they showed a genuine interest in the OMX operation.” When some warehouse positions opened-up, Jani contacted DORS.
Wei Attia Says Her Co-Workers Have Been Very Supportive
By mid winter, two DORS consumers were hired: Wei Attia in January and Melinda Kowalski in February. Both women, who are deaf, work as Distribution Specialists. DORS provided four months of on-the-job support for the new employees and warehouse staff, as well as assisted with OMX receiving financial hiring incentives. In addition, prior to Wei and Melinda coming on-board, Jani conducted training for the location’s management team on OMX’s diversity and inclusion initiative. Jody and Kathy Schwabeland, Staff Specialist for Deaf Services, conducted training for both management and second shift warehouse staff on disability etiquette and working with co-workers who are deaf. Hank says this training was very helpful. “Kathy came in with grace and humor. She told the warehouse employees ‘Ask me anything; there are no out-of-bounds questions’.”
DORS also provided interpreters to help Wei and Melinda adjust to their new work environment. One of the interpreters provided sign language classes, optional lunchtime information sessions, and communication tips and strategies for the warehouse staff.
The Flag-Draped Office Max Distribution Center Shows Off Its Diversity
A visit to the flag-draped distribution center (one for every country represented by a warehouse employee) reveals the successful partnership. Wei and Melinda are enthusiastic about being at OMX because of the “great teamwork” and Hank reports that there have been unexpected benefits to hiring employees who are deaf. “We had to make some minor accommodations for better communication and that has helped everyone!”
OfficeMax continues to work closely with DORS to develop other employment opportunities. “We are looking to hire more…every time we have an opening, we let DORS know,” says Jani, who also notes the team impact. “This has been a great team-building experience for everyone!”