UPMC uses internships to help Pittsburgh youth with disabilities get work
June 14, 2015 12:00 AM
Mark Lunz, center, poses with Katherine Lashley and Steven Strosser at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Oakland.
Mark Lunz looks on as Katherine Lashley and Steven Strosser sort surgical instruments at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Oakland. Mr. Lunz recently won an award for his track record of hiring individuals with disabilities.
By Eddy Wang / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In 2010, when Mark Lunz was working at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, he was inspired by an employee with a mental disability to make it his mission to hire individuals with disabilities to work with him.
Mr. Lunz is now director of surgical central services at UPMC Presbyterian and UPMC Montefiore. Over the past three years, he has hired two individuals with mental disabilities, Steven Strosser and Katherine Lashley, to work among a staff of 12 to 15 at UPMC Presbyterian, where they assemble, sequence and deliver trays of surgical tools for surgeons in the operating room.
“I just thought it was the right thing to do,” said Mr. Lunz. “[Steven and Katherine] are so reliable and dependable. They just want to make you happy.”
Mr. Strosser and Ms. Lashley are graduates of Project Search, an internship program founded in 1996 at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. Project Search now has 400 sites around the country aimed at providing employment training to students with disabilities.
Partner sites offer mostly hospital and health care jobs, though there are retail and manufacturing opportunities available as well. According to Erin Riehle, co-founder and executive director of Project Search, 73 percent of all participants in 2013-14 found employment at a standard wage.
UPMC is the only Project Search site in Pittsburgh. Participants here spend their last year of high school rotating through three different jobs at either UPMC Mercy Hospital or Passavant. They are not paid but are sponsored by their school and the state’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.
Since its inception in 2008, the UPMC Project Search program has provided internships for 80 participants from Allegheny, Westmoreland and Butler counties. Forty have stayed on at UPMC after graduation.
Ms. Lashley spent her internship at Passavant, where she assembled ventilators, prepped supplies for the emergency room, and sterilized medical trays and carts. But she really wanted to work with medical instruments, a wish granted when Mr. Lunz hired her at Presbyterian.
This past week, Ms. Lashley celebrated her two-year employment anniversary. She said she wants to work at Presbyterian forever. “Everyone has been so wonderful to me since I got here,” she said. “I just love working here.”
Mr. Strosser works alongside Ms. Lashley and celebrated his three-year employment anniversary last week. He said family members are jealous of his job.
Ms. Lashley and Mr. Strosser don’t have all the responsibilities of regular staff members, such as decontaminating used equipment. But in the jobs that they do, Mr. Lunz said their productivity is on par with anybody else.
Mr. Lunz tries to make the work environment as comfortable as possible. He is often seen fist-bumping Ms. Lashley or joking around with Mr. Strosser. “You’ve got to be open to understanding how to make [these employees] successful,” he said.
According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report for May, 10.1 percent of people with disabilities were unemployed, nearly double the rate of those without disabilities.
The Kessler Foundation’s 2015 National Employment and Disability Survey found that for individuals with disabilities, the top three barriers they face when looking for a job are lack of education or training; employers assuming they can’t do the job; and lack of transportation.
Once employed, the top three barriers such workers experience are getting less pay than others with a similar job, attitudes on the part of their supervisor, and attitudes on the part of their coworkers.
UPMC Project Search isn’t the only local program working to address these concerns.
Another program in Pittsburgh that aims to secure employment for young people with disabilities is 21 and Able. Funded in part by Kessler, the United Way-based program has secured employment for 37 individuals at O’Hara-based grocer Giant Eagle. The program also announced a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh last month.
Kessler, which is based in New Jersey, also funds other nonprofits that consult with corporations such as Pepsi and Lowe’s to help identify and hire people with disabilities.Andorganizations such as Life’s Work, Goodwill and the state’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation provide or sponsor employment training.
According to Rodger DeRose, president and CEO of the Kessler Foundation, corporate America become more open in the last four or five years to hiring more people with disabilities.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that although the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is still higher than that for people without disabilities, individuals with disabilities have gotten employed at a faster rate than their counterparts in the past year. From May 2014 to May 2015, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities went down 2.6 percent, while the difference in unemployment rate for people without disabilities was only 0.7 percent.
Mr. DeRose sees a variety of factors at play: job prospects are improving in the overall economy; corporate America has started to put in more programs that are disability-friendly; and baby boomers are gradually retiring, creating demand for labor.
In addition, he said the 2014 Workplace Investment and Opportunity Act, which calls for reforms to federal job training programs, may require some companies to hire more individuals with disabilities.
Challenges remain. Pancho Timmons, supervisor for the Pittsburgh Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, which co-sponsors Project Search participants, said that sponsoring students — which requires covering transportation and other costs — is a challenge for some schools.
On a national level, some individuals with disabilities may be reluctant to search for work because they fear they could lose their federal benefits if they earn too much, said Andrew Houtenville, associate professor of economics at the University of New Hampshire and a designer of the Kessler study. Most individuals with disabilities get federal benefits through Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance.
Eddy Wang: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1969.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
email@example.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.