AURORA -- Of Natural Essentials' approximately 280 employees, President Gary Pellegrino said about 20 percent have various disabilities, ranging from blindness to autism.
"We've been honored by a number organizations, including the governor, for our work," he said, gesturing toward a wall of about a half dozen plaques and certificates.
He said he tried hiring people with disabilities as a promise to a friend who spent much of his life deaf and has since died.
"He said, 'That's all you really need to do. We're the best workers,'" said Pellegrino. "In honor of my friend, I'm keeping that promise."
As it turned out, Pellegrino's friend was correct about disabled people's work. Although they sometimes are tricky to manage, many are exceptionally productive, and nearly all can learn to adjust to their surroundings with time and patience.
One employee with Asperger's Syndrome proved he has an eye for detail Pellegrino said is rare for anyone. This employee noticed a small mislabeled product among hundreds or thousands he sees in a given day. Pellegrino said he noticed lettering on a lip balm tube was the wrong color.
Another employee, who Pellegrino said would have "been hard-pressed to put a bottle on a belt line" when he started, has improved drastically. "I have him doing plumbing for me, drywall for me," he said.
Working with some disabled employees does present some unique challenges, he added.
"For those that are severely autistic, sometimes it takes awhile, but you have to find some kind of common denominator between the two of you," he said, explaining they have to be reached on a personal level to become comfortable working in some cases.
In any industrial setting, there are rules for who and what goes where, but Pellegrino said his work force, which includes blind and deaf employees, necessitated special considerations for everyone's safety. Special painted stripes direct people and vehicles in the company's Lena Drive facility.
"We also have restricted areas where people can't go," he said. "There's very specific walkways."
Asked to name the agencies from which the company recruits disabled employees, Human Resources Manager Jesse Wilson at first hesitated.
"There are so darn many of them," he said. "There are probably at least a half-dozen."
Some of those organizations include Hattie Larlham, UDS, Coleman Professional Services, Siffrin Employment Services, Vocworks, Jewish Family Services, the Ackerman Community Group, CLW, the Cleveland Sight Center and the Summit County Educational Service Center, said Wilson.
"The turnover rate is close to none," he said. "It usually comes down to transportation."
Many of the disabled employees can't drive themselves to work and rely on other resources to get to work, he explained.
Pellegrino said sometimes bureaucracy gets in the way of employing people with disabilities full time. "In some cases, I can't bring these people on board full time because they'll lose their disability and insurance," he said.
The company has been making an effort to employee disabled individuals since 2010. "The problem people have is they have a preconceived notion of what people are capable of," said Pellegrino.
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