Dawn Bookhardt-Bowen was working at Ramble on Pearl, a Boulder boutique, last year when coronavirus began spreading across Boulder County and the nation.
Wanting to protect her health, Bookhardt-Bowen left her job at the store for six months.
“I was afraid to come back to work,” she said. “I didn’t come back to work until I was sure the store was set up for social distancing and sanitation.”
The Boulder resident is a graduate of Ramble on Pearl‘s job apprenticeship program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Through the program, apprentices work at the clothing and accessory boutique to gain paid work experience, while learning from job coaches and eventually graduating to a job beyond the store.
Nonprofit co-founder Connie Minden saw firsthand the impact the pandemic had on working people with disabilities. Of her program of roughly 10 people, five graduates lost their jobs or were furloughed. The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment said it doesn’t have timely state data on the number of people with disabilities who had lost or regained employment, pointing instead to national sources.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 17.9% of people with disabilities were employed in 2020 — a number that was down from 19.3% employment in 2019. The report notes that from 2019 to 2020, unemployment increased, both for people with and without disabilities, at rates of 12.6% and 7.9%, respectively.
Minden feels optimistic that jobs are being regained, as hiring shortages across industries have opened up work opportunities. This year, she said, two people involved with the program were able to regain their original jobs, and three have found new employment. The Kessler Foundation, a nonprofit disability service, shows in its July 2021 jobs report that more people with disabilities across the nation are working this year compared to 2020, with labor force participation rates rising from 33% to 35.2% for 2021.
As obstacles continue throughout the ongoing pandemic, people with disabilities have still had issues to overcome in their search for work.
Officials with the Center for People with Disabilities, a Colorado-based nonprofit service provider, and the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which helps people with disabilities find and retain jobs as well as advance in the workplace, say they continue to see people express concerns about health and safety in the wake of the ongoing pandemic and surge of the coronavirus delta variant.
Minden is a former California schoolteacher, who alongside her husband, Andy Minden, founded Boulder Treasures, the nonprofit that runs Ramble on Pearl.
The couple’s inspiration for starting the nonprofit was their daughter, Kendra Minden, 29, who has trisomy 18, a chromosomal abnormality. Kendra was among those who had a job outside the store, but lost it last year because of the pandemic. She has since returned to Ramble on Pearl to help out as an apprentice to keep her job skills sharp.
Connie Minden is hopeful the store serves as an example.
“Plenty of people are happy to have them volunteer, but when it comes to committing to paying, that’s a challenge,” she said. “That’s a big part of the reason my husband and I decided to do this, because of the devalued aspect of this population. We pay them full minimum wage as an example to others and also because they need a paid job on their resume.”
Bookhardt-Bowen said Ramble on Pearl took all the necessary precautions to make employees feel safe during the pandemic. This effort encouraged her to come back to work, when the store started bringing people back in phases, after shutting down from March to May.
“Everything that could be done, happened so that I could return to work and feel comfortable,” she said.
After graduating from her apprenticeship, Bookhardt-Bowen went on last summer to work a temporary job cleaning equipment at a gym. Her hours were eventually slashed, though, from 32 hours per week to six hours per week.
“I wasn’t making the same money, of course,” Bookhardt-Bowen said. “Luckily, I have a very supportive family; they were able to step in and help carry me for a few months until I found another job.”
When the gym job officially came to an end in March, Bookhardt-Bowen said, it took her about three months to land her current job at Whole Foods, where she works in the main kitchen helping with prepared foods.
The Boulder resident said obstacles to find a job throughout the pandemic haven’t been that different than regular challenges, like being prepared for “constantly interviewing.”
Holly Ewing is a program manager for the Center for People with Disabilities and is based out of the Thornton office. The nonprofit provides services, including an employment program, to help people with disabilities in Boulder, Longmont and Broomfield find jobs.
“We did have some people who were able to return back to work what they wanted to do and the hours they wanted,” Ewing said. “We also had other people that decided ‘It’s still not safe for me to go back to work, so I’m going to stay out of the workforce.’ Now they’re trying to look for something else they could do that would be a more remote-type setting.”
Yet another obstacle to getting back to work has been limitations to getting vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. Ewing said some people with disabilities have autoimmune disorders, and their doctors have advised against them getting vaccinated. Others continue to face transportation barriers that make getting to a clinic on their own inaccessible.
Like Minden, Ewing has also seen more job opportunities open up due to hiring shortages, but the situation hasn’t spared nonprofits that help those with disabilities.
Ewing said a major challenge for people with disabilities, who need the one-on-one support to find work, is that places that help them, such as the Center for People with Disabilities, are themselves understaffed. This means a longer waitlist for people who need services.
At the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Rebecca Virkus, supervisor of the Longmont district, also cited a major obstacle for getting back to work as health concerns.
“There are certain people with disabilities that have health concerns that need to be considered as they are looking for employment,” she wrote in an email. “There have been more request(s) to find employment that allows for remote work.”
Ewing added: “Historically, depending on their disability, a lot of people are working entry level, front-line positions in retail, in restaurant settings. Those are the ones that COVID is the biggest concern for.”
Despite any obstacles, Virkus said the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation continues to work alongside those with disabilities to secure them employment. In the last performance year between April 2019 and March 2020, she said 1,484 people served through the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation were able to find employment in Colorado.
Looking to a better future
Being able to be together in person again has already helped Ramble on Pearl overcome some of the challenges it faced going remote.
“It’s tough to teach job skills when you’re not in a space where you can physically learn them,” Minden said. “We had to do a lot of backtracking when we were able to bring people back into the store. We had to reteach (those skills). If you don’t have that ability to practice, you lose a lot of ground that you have gained.”
In the back of the store, Minden keeps a whiteboard listing 40 skill sets that apprentices should learn, based on their individual ability. While not all will go on to retail jobs, she said many of the skills, such as vacuuming, dusting and cleaning bathrooms, translate to skills that can help someone be independent in their everyday life.
On Thursday morning, she ticked off the skills that apprentice Harrison Price had achieved as he bustled into the back of the store while working.
“I was just bragging about you,” Minden said to Price.
“Just remember, I have ears everywhere,” he quipped.
Back on the store floor, among racks of clothing, wall displays of purses and jewelry, Price hung up new shirts and straightened merchandise.
“There’s a lot I could say,” Price said when asked about the best parts of his work. “I love all the people here. They’re helpful and experienced.”
Price’s dream jobs involve something using his favorite hobbies: acting and writing fiction. When he’s not at the store, he’s involved in CenterStage’s Tapestry Theatre Company in Louisville, which provides casting opportunities to actors with disabilities. In his most recent role he played Lord Farquaad in a rendition of “Shrek.”
With only two more skills to master, Price is on his way to finding work outside Ramble. After Ramble, Price said he hopes to find a job in a restaurant.
For those looking to find work right now, Bookhardt-Bowen encouraged them not to give up.
“Reach for full-time employment hours,” Bookhardt-Bowen said. “Keep going on interviews.”
To learn more
Division of Vocational Rehabilitation: 825 Delaware Ave. No. 402, Longmont, phone number: 303-774-4920, online: dvr.colorado.gov
Center for People with Disabilities: 1675 Range St., Boulder, phone number: 303-442-8662, online: cpwd.org
Ramble on Pearl, 1638 Pearl St., Boulder, phone number: 303-442-2267, online: rambleonpearl.com
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