For the past 20 years, Armida Flores has had a job to go to.
After first serving lunch at a local adult school, she now works on an assembly line along with more than 140 fellow employees, packaging products for various companies and suppliers.
“I like it here because everybody knows me already and I work hard,” said the 44-year-old Bell Gardens resident who recently received a special pin for her two decades of service.
Her employer is The Arc of Los Angeles and Orange Counties, a nonprofit organization in Downey dedicated to helping people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the local region enter the workforce and become productive members of society.
The organization was first formed in 1956 by families in Lynwood to provide services to people with disabilities, helping them transition from high school into the real world and advocating on their behalf to enable them to become gainfully employed and a part of the community.
While the nonprofit has gone through name changes over the years and other branches of the original group have broken off to develop their own independent operations with similar titles, The Arc of Los Angeles and Orange Counties is part of a national community-based organization.
The national group now has 700 local chapters across the country with specific principles and guidelines for providing services for people with various developmental disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome, Fragile X and various other conditions.
In Downey, the nonprofit organization has an operating budget of about $3 million annually, receiving about $1.75 million from government support and the rest through private funding and revenue, according to Arc officials.
The Arc has several operations at its facilities located at 12049 Woodruff Ave., including an employment center, where people of various ages and spectrums receive training and education before taking a job. The organization also provides services to help its members apply for positions, working with nearly 40 outside employers, ranging from grocery stores to movie theaters to fast-food chains.
The Arc also has its own employment opportunities.
Depending on their capabilities, members are able to work at Arc Southeast Industries, a 22,000-square-foot warehouse developed out of a former airplane-manufacturing hangar where members package and assemble various products that get shipped out directly to local clients or to their suppliers. Also on site is The Reagan Banquet Center, a facility that was fully remodeled through a private donation and where workers can take lunch breaks and some members learn culinary skills.
Members also have a chance to work at The Arc’s retail franchise dollar store known as Just-A-Buck that it opened at 141 E. Willow St. in Long Beach last year. Currently, there are four to five employees from The Arc working at the 3,900-square-foot establishment, where they are able to gain skills in customer service, cashiering and stocking merchandise. The store operates much like a regular retail business, however, 100 percent of the proceeds go back into the organization.
Jeffrey Stephens, director of The Arc’s employment center, said the organization’s warehouse operation provides an opportunity for members to receive real-life work experience in a structured environment.
“There are some families who are just not ready for the transition into mainstream employment, so they’ll have their sons or daughters work at a place like this, where the shelters are still working, to have great social interaction,” Stephens said. He added that some employees have been working there for more than 30 years.
Still, even though employees have disabilities they have responsibilities and are required to carry out tasks just like employees without disabilities, Stephens said. Employees work shifts from about 8am to 3:30pm and receive paychecks at a rate of little more than minimum wage, he said. The organization provides job coaching and counseling services as a nonprofit, but the warehouse operation runs strictly as a business, Stephens said.
“These guys really work,” he said. “They have a deadline to meet, and they get paid real dollars! There’s nothing artificial or nonprofit about it.”
Ashvin Patel, director of production who oversees The Arc Southeast Industries and the Vocational and Educational Center, said the warehouse puts out an average of about 300,000 packaged items per month and provides assembly services for longtime clients that sell items ranging from skin-care products to emergency kits.
For some employees, the job can determine a person’s capabilities and be a bridge to outside employment, Patel said.
“It’s a good stepping stone,” he said. “Can they work fast enough? Can they concentrate? Are they on time? Can they come to work every day? Those are the key things that when they want to work in a community they need.”
The Arc also provides services for some of its members who are born with more severe developmental disabilities by providing educational support for cognitive functioning and day programming for outside activities.
“In the world of intellectual disabilities it really is ‘use it or lose it,'” Stephens said. “You’ve got to constantly be learning and educating and talking and interacting, because if you’re sitting at home watching TV, your skills will regress extremely quickly; faster than somebody who doesn’t have a disability.”
For other members who are able to be more independent, and even live in their own apartment, The Arc staff members, including job coaches and employment counselors, are critical to work with both families and employers as an advocate during the job-interview process, Stephens said. In Los Angeles County alone the unemployment rate is about 9 percent, but the jobless rate is above 80 percent for people with disabilities, he said.
Social Security benefits for employees of The Arc may be decreased, but the loss of government subsidies is compensated through earned income, Stephens said. Arc staff members added that family members can often be an “invisible barrier” for members to become employed on their own out of fear of the dangers associated with independence, but Stephens said the goal of The Arc is to have people with disabilities grow in the work they’re capable of doing.
“They’re the most proud, honored workers in the workforce because they know how hard it is for them to get a job and have somebody take them seriously,” Stephens said.
This article is the second of a two-part series.