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Amid labor shortage, more Ohio businesses turn to employees with developmental disabilities

A young woman in a black and red shirt folds a long white sheet.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Marlena Timmerman folds a sheet at D&D Industrial Services.

Inside an industrial warehouse, a large washing machine full of white sheets spins faster and faster.

Nearby, an ironing press flattens four cloth restaurant napkins at a time.

“We'll probably run around 2,600 to 3,000 [napkins] an hour through this machine,” said Joe Buchanan. He started this laundry business with his partner 32 years ago in Boardman, just south of Youngstown.

“In the city, factories were closing up and leaving, so we decided to do our own thing,” he said.

Their business, D&D Industrial Services, has withstood loads of challenges since then.

A global pandemic didn’t take it down. But the ensuing labor shortage almost did.

“Our work pool is completely changed,” Buchanan said. “I don't see it getting back to what it ever was. A lot of people through attrition have retired and the workforce is not being replaced with the new folks that are coming up in age.”

So Buchanan started hiring employees he hadn’t considered before: people with developmental disabilities.

 A row of cars and trucks parked outside of a warehouse. A small white sign marks the building as D&D Industrial Services.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
D&D Industrial Services, a commercial laundry service, has recently started hiring more people with developmental disabilities.

A changing labor landscape

Amy Helmuth is one of those hires. She clearly remembers the day she got the offer.

“Joe, him in there, he's like, ‘Do you want the job? You're good. We like you. Will you do it?’” Helmuth said. “Yes. I said, ‘Yeah.”

Helmuth folds sheets with her coworker Marlena Timmerman. The two have been working together for about a year and have become good friends.

“I like it here folding sheets,” Timmerman said.

She feels welcome there, with Helmuth and seven other colleagues who also have developmental disabilities.

Nearly a hundred more are employed across Mahoning County.

“The opportunities have really grown,” said George Gabriel, who works with the Mahoning County Board of Disabilities.

“We actually right now have more employers wanting employees than we have employees that are looking for jobs.”

George Gabriel, the Mahoning County Board of Disabilities

Gabriel said the labor shortage has prompted local businesses to provide extra training and make accommodations for people with disabilities they wouldn’t have made before.

“It could be simple accommodations,” he said, “such as, maybe there has to be a picture schedule.”

 Two women stand on either side of a folding table to fold a pile of white sheets.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Marlena Timmerman and Amy Helmuth work together folding sheets at D&D Industrial Services. The company started hiring more people with developmental disabilities after the pandemic, when demand for its services increased and it needed more workers.

Employment in Ohio and the nation

The state agency, Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, works with hundreds of employers to help them hire and retain workers with disabilities. In the past year alone, more than 100 new employers have come aboard, bringing the total number near 700.

Though the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is still twice as high as the general population nationally, it did fall by 2.5 percent last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Gabriel thinks that number will keep falling as businesses realize the potential of these workers.

“Whereas before they may not have had any of our folks hired, now that they are hiring, they're seeing the benefits of what they can bring to the table,” he said.

Employers get employees that take pride in their work and show up reliably, and employees like Helmuth get a welcoming work environment and a steady paycheck.

“I like this,” Helmuth said. “This is less stress than working fast food and working in a warehouse.”

For Joe Buchanan, hiring Helmuth and her colleagues has been a lifesaver.

“As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “they’ll retire with me.”

Updated: October 23, 2023 at 10:15 AM EDT
This article was originally published on June 13, 2023.
Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.