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En-Abling disabled workers at Wagner’s European Bakery & Café

By Julia Voss
Published June 2005

How can businesses address the problem of high turnover in low-skilled jobs? Wagner’s European Bakery and Café of Olympia has developed a solution to this issue with the help of Morningside Services, a “community rehabilitation program providing employment services to individuals with disabilities.” This business decision, along with many others, has helped Wagner’s number among the largest independent bakeries in Washington State. Wagner’s has two bakery and café operations and several grocery store outlets in the Olympia area. They offer a full range of baked good with a focus on European products, from cookies and breads to tortes and wedding cakes, catering to both retail and wholesale customers. In 2005, Wagner’s introduced a new line of sugar-free cakes in response to the country’s recent fascination with low-carb diets.

Wagner’s, a local, family-owned business operating in Olympia since 1938, was having trouble with the ‘high-schoolers’ it employed to clean up their facility. Wagner’s would hire the student and train them, and they would enjoy a good working relationship for a few months. However, track season or the spring musical or prom committee meetings would soon start up, and the student would have to quit working because of these other commitments. From Wagner’s end, this meant they were constantly training new workers.

Then, about seven years ago, Morningside services entered the picture. They approached Wagner’s owner, Todd Wagner, about the possibility of hiring people with disabilities to take over these low-skilled jobs, with the support services Morningside provides. Morningside proposed that instead of Wagner’s hiring high school students for these low-skilled jobs, they should hire clients from the Morningside Training Institute, who Morningside could then provide with job coaches and other workplace support services to help them learn their job and perform it well.

That was seven years ago, and, according to Mr. Wagner, the employees referred to them through Morningside (Wagner’s usually employs about five at a time) have proven to be excellent workers, providing the Bakery with high quality and low-incident performance. The Morningside workers have much better retention rates and take their work more seriously than their high-school counterparts, and Wagner’s has been highly satisfied with their choice to work with Morningside’s referees.

Companies like Wagner’s Bakery working in conjunction with disabilities employment service organizations like Morningside account for what H. Stephen Kaye of the University of California San Francisco sees as a dramatic decrease in unemployment among disabled people.

In Dr. Kaye’s 2003 study, “Improved Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities,” which examines the effectiveness of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) during its first 12 years in effect, he demonstrates how changing methods of definition “disability” and “employability” changed the way the government and private, not-for-profit 501-(c)(3) organizations like Morningside connect disabled people seeking employment with companies like Wagner’s. The post-ADA practice of having disabled people rate their own disability and employability has helped service organizations like Morningside connect “the segment of the disability population most likely to respond to employment opportunities when they are offered” with companies like Wagner’s which want to hire them.


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