Travel agency looks for loyalty in hiring workers with disabilities

Case studies prove people with disabilities are valuable employees
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/22/2005

Last fall, the Minister’s Council on Employment for Persons with Disabilities, part of British Columbia’s Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance, released a research report on employers’ experiences and approaches to hiring people with disabilities.

Done in collaboration with the British Columbia Human Resources Management Association, the report highlighted a number of employers with experience integrating people with disabilities. Below are two such case studies.

New Ports Travel

is a full service travel agency that has been operating in Victoria for nearly 20 years. Ash Mukherjee and Irene Hamburg purchased the travel agency in 2003. New Ports employs three full-time and four part-time staff, two of whom have disabilities.

Like many small businesses, New Ports operates without a dedicated human resource staff or formal HR procedures. The process of hiring employees with disabilities and making them part of the New Ports team is still fairly new for the company, but the owners already consider the experience a success.

One of New Ports’ employees is Paul, a back-office staffer who currently works three half days per week for close to minimum wage. Paul has a psychiatric disability. His employment history prior to joining New Ports was unstable. His longest position was one year and much of his employment was as a temporary labourer. Now, thanks in part to better medical treatment, Paul hopes this job will be more stable and permanent.

For New Ports, it was the desire to be good corporate citizens, coupled with the belief that people with disabilities might prove to be loyal employees, that motivated the process. The owners also felt that employees with disabilities would be less vulnerable to offers from other companies and that they would have less turnover, thereby offering continuity in client servicing. As for Paul, his goals were to attain full-time employment and to leave disability benefits behind.

Agency connects employers with candidates

New Ports does not have any formalized processes in place to assist its owners with hiring, although the owners state that they have substantial experience with the hiring process. In order to find job candidates with disabilities, they looked at various government agencies that deal with people with disabilities, but didn’t find any help. Finally, they heard about Triumph Vocational Services, an organization funded by the B.C. government to help find jobs for people with disabilities. Triumph supplied the company with a number of resumés and some advice on the hiring process. New Ports proceeded to interview candidates and settled on three people who they thought were qualified, two of whom are still with the company.

“Triumph played a big role in getting me the job. I had tried other job agencies with no success,” says Paul.

The waiting game

“Finding job candidates with disabilities was very difficult,” says Mukherjee. It took some time for Triumph to match Paul and New Ports. Despite working a few days a week, Paul welcomes the opportunity to increase his stamina and would like to increase his work hours.

Personalizing accommodation

When it comes to accommodating an employee with a disability, Mukherjee looks at the business case. If the cost of accommodating someone is offset by the fact that they have found a valuable employee, then the decision is easy.

Mukherjee’s approach to accommodating Paul involved looking at what Paul could and couldn’t do and then fine-tuning the job accordingly. In Paul’s case, the only accommodation he needed was to be given the freedom to take a break for a short time whenever he felt it was necessary.

When asked about whether he would hire other people with disabilities, Mukherjee replied that he would definitely consider it if the person was qualified. Furthermore, he indicated that he would make the necessary accommodations to bring them on board.

A perfect match

At the time of the study, Paul had been with the company for a number of months and had become a valuable addition to the New Ports team. Working with client data, Paul completely revamped the New Ports customer database, allowing the company to conduct targeted marketing campaigns and to provide better service to its clients. For example, the company can now select people for mailings based upon their travel interests or other demographics. This will improve the returns on their marketing investment.

“I am really happy to have the chance to showcase what I can do,” says Paul. Mukherjee readily agrees. “It’s nice to find a willing learner with some abilities to complete a task.” He calls Paul “brilliant” and expects to increase his hours soon and involve him with other kinds of work.

Thrifty Foods

is a grocery retailer with 18 stores throughout Vancouver Island, Salt Spring Island and Tsawwassen. As the largest private-sector employer on Vancouver Island, with 3,200 employees, Thrifty Foods has a strong reputation as a community-minded business that takes care of its customers and its employees.

Although Thrifty Foods doesn’t track the overall number of employees with disabilities, there are a number of people with disabilities working for the company. It is estimated that between 30 to 65 employees are off work at any given time due to disability.

Interviews were conducted with Gaya Cutler, manager of staffing and recruitment at the time, Kathy Murphy, then disability manager, and an employee who wished to remain anonymous.

Taking care of employees

Although there isn’t a formal company statement regarding the hiring of people with disabilities, the company has a culture of taking care of its employees and being a good corporate citizen. This has encouraged managers to be proactive and flexible in this area. The human resources division, in particular, has been proactive in a number of disability related areas including the creation of Murphy’s position as disability manager. In addition, Bonnie Campbell, the vice-president of human resources and compensation, also promotes employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

The company hopes that a properly managed disability management program will help reduce costs. In 2003, for example, employees missed 11,000 days due to injury and disability, costing the company an estimated $400,000 in lost time. In 2004, they were working to lower the number of missed days to fewer than 10,000. Their long-term goal is to reduce this number by 50 per cent.

When it comes to hiring new employees at the stores, location or department managers make most of the decisions. The HR team also supports the process. HR has developed corporate guidelines around hiring to ensure a fair and effective process. Thrifty Foods has also used external groups such as the Greater Vancouver Business Leadership Network, the Garth Homer Society and the Vancouver Island Deaf and Hard of Hearing Society to look at opportunities to match jobs with people with disabilities.

In the area of disability management and return to work, the company has traditionally tried to accommodate employees who become disabled through gradual return-to-work programs, job carving and providing accommodations if needed. Currently, the company is going beyond this to improve the process. A database was created to capture key indicators of their performance in the return-to-work area and Murphy’s role as disability manager means that there is someone who can devote her full attention to disability management.

Another key objective for Murphy is to get involved with employees sooner after they become disabled. By being proactive in this regard, Thrifty Foods hopes to reduce the impact of the disability on both the employee and the company.

Thrifty Foods also has an occupational health and safety auditor who conducts job assessments and provides ideas on return-to-work options for employees. His duties also include accident prevention.

When an employee does become disabled, a team is put together consisting of the employee, Thrifty’s disability manager, insurance representatives, medical practitioners and rehabilitation professionals. Together, the team develops a return-to-work plan. If job accommodations are needed, a business case may also be completed if the costs are high.

In the case of an employee working in the produce department of one of the stores, the return-to-work process took three years. The employee had been with the company for 14 years when he injured his back on his day off. Initially, he didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the injury and tried to take a few days off work to recover. He returned for three weeks, but had to stop work due to the severe pain he was experiencing.

Moving onto short-term and then long-term disability benefits, he worked his way through medical treatment and then physical rehabilitation. At the time of this interview, he was still taking pain medication, but he was able to perform 80 per cent of his previous duties. The graduated return-to-work program started with just two hours per week and gradually increased.

Although he would have appreciated more contact from the company while he was off work, he was impressed by the fact that Thrifty Foods kept his job open for the three years he was away from work.

Tackling challenges

One of the key issues on the hiring side is the decentralized nature of the hiring process. With individual managers making hiring decisions, consistency is a challenge. To help alleviate this issue, HR is working to educate managers through effective hiring workshops, corporate guidelines and simply being available to answer questions.

Another challenge is the nature of the work. Many of the jobs at the company are in a physically demanding retail setting. This can make it difficult to find a suitable job for someone with a disability, but the company has been creative in developing “light duty” jobs to help the return-to-work process.

Finally, like many employers in B.C., Thrifty Foods is also faced with an aging workforce and a larger number of long-term employees. This underscores the need to have a good disability management program in place.

For more information on the Recruitment and Retention of Persons with Disabilities in British Columbia Research Project, go to

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