ELIZABETH, NJ - Brenda Peguero, manager of Wendy's restaurant in Hillside, hired Robert Capello as a greeter. It was not long before his work ethic and reliability convinced her to increase his responsibilities, she said. Working three hours a day, three days a week, Capello cleans tables, sweeps floors and refills utensils and the ice dispenser.

Capello is an adult with a disability, one of more than 18.6 million Americans with disabilities aged 16 to 64 who are employed. While that figure is an accomplishment worth celebrating compared to decades past, the unemployment rate for this population was 9.2 percent in 2017, an alarming 5 percent higher than Americans without a disability, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Robert is very nice and sweet," Peguero said. "He works well with others and interacts with the customers well. Customers even ask for him when he's not here."

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Capello arrives early each day and is very good at adhering to all company policies, Peguero added. She admits her experience with Capello has opened her eyes about employing people with disabilities.

"I would do it again because of Robert," she said. "I was looking for someone to greet, and he exceeded that. That has opened my eyes to the possibilities."

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Established in 1945, National Disability Employment Awareness Month is a time to educate Americans about disability employment issues and to celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities, according to the U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy.

The nonprofit Community Access Unlimited is working to change the misconception that people with disabilities cannot work, according to Fredia McKinnie, assistant executive director of employment at the agency. CAU is a Union County-based, statewide nonprofit that strives to integrate people with disabilities and at-risk youth into the general community and supports its members with housing, vocational and life-skills training, education, advocacy, and recreation.

CAU maintains a robust employment services department for its members, including Capello. When members express an interest in working, they are assessed to determine their jobs skills and preferences, McKinnie said. The department then provides pre-placement services, including resume-building, interview training, work dress guidance, and job sampling, on-the-job training and more.

More than 50 CAU members are employed, with service time ranging from one to more than 30 years, according to McKinnie. Employment partners include Walmart, ShopRite, Target, Marshall's, Whitson Culinary Group, the Humane Society and Wendy's.

Capello said he loves working. He was previously employed at an occupational center, but did not find that work rewarding, he said.

"I like working with people and the customers," he said. "I get along with my coworkers, and my supervisor says I'm a very hard worker."

Simon Martins, another CAU member, works in the security department at CAU, overseeing one of the agency's parking lots.

"I secure the lot, telling people where to park and making sure the lot is clean," he said. "I really like it."

Antonio Ruiz, facilities manager at CAU, said Martins' work ethic makes him an excellent employee.

"He comes to me every day to get his assignment," Ruiz said. "He's very independent and reliable. He knows how to run the lot alone. He keeps track of multiple people coming and going. He also likes to be busy, so if I have another task for him, he's happy to help."

There are a number of quantifiable benefits for a business employing people with disabilities. Studies show that employees with disabilities are absent less frequently than those without disabilities and are more likely to stay at their job. A study by The Chicago Lighthouse focusing on workers in a local call center found employees with a disability had a retention rate nearly twice as long as those without a disability.

Employees with disabilities are less likely to get work-related injuries because they tend to be more aware of safety issues than those without disabilities, research shows. A study by DuPont found that workers with disabilities performed significantly higher than those without disabilities in the area of safety.

Employing people with disabilities increases a company's diversity, which has been documented to benefit businesses in such areas as enhanced customer service and improved return on investment and sales. According to human resources and recruitment firm Brazen, diverse workforces result in better decision-making and improved customer service. A 2015 study by Deloitte also showed that diverse companies had 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee over a three-year period than did non-diverse companies.

Businesses that employ people with disabilities may qualify for a number of tax incentives, including the Disabled Access Credit, Barrier Removal Tax Deduction and Work Opportunity Tax Credit.

"At a time when businesses are having trouble filling open positions due to very low unemployment, people with disabilities offer employers a wonderful opportunity to gain reliable workers who are happy to be employed and are dedicated to their jobs," McKinnie said. "Nine times out of 10, they will be the best employees they ever had.

Local businesses that would like to learn more about working with CAU to hire people with disabilities should contact McKinnie at 908.354.3040, ext. 4646 or fmckinnie@caunj.org.

Currently serving more than 5,000 individuals and families, CAU continues to grow each year. For more information about CAU and its services, contact us by phone at 908.354.3040, info@caunj.org or by mail at 80 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07202.

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