From the moment Hy-Vee human resources manager Shira Moore interviewed Jennifer Okell, she could tell the 26-year-old was a go-getter.
“She was just really so excited to get in here and learn and try to help others,” Moore said.
So she hired Okell as a courtesy clerk, or bagger, at the Hy-Vee store at 178th and Pacific Streets earlier this year. But because Okell is blind in her left eye and visually impaired in her right eye, she had trouble with customer interactions. Now, she works in the dish room washing pots, pans and dishes.
“(It's) definitely easier for me to handle,” Okell said of her new position.
That accommodation and Hy-Vee's willingness to hire people with disabilities recently earned the company, along with Staybridge Suites of Omaha, the annual Able Workplace Award given by the Northwest Rotary Club of Omaha.
Since 2006, the club's vocational services committee has chosen two local businesses annually, one small and one large, for the award in cooperation with local agencies that work with people with disabilities. This year, based on clients' experiences, the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired nominated Hy-Vee, and residential rehabilitation provider QLI nominated Staybridge Suites.
The Hy-Vee at 178th and Pacific accepted the award on behalf of all Hy-Vee stores in Omaha.
Some years, only one category has been filled, said Ken Backman, the Rotary Club's vocational services committee chairman. “We're always looking for that outstanding example, so if we don't feel we see any, then the category may go unawarded. But we had two this year,” he said.
Over the past year, Hy-Vees in Omaha have hired four clients of the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Omaha district supervisor Nancy Flearl said.
“They are truly ... an organization that really thinks outside the box of who they're hiring, what they need, and providing opportunity for every single individual,” Flearl said.
Staybridge Suites was nominated because of the experience of a QLI client, Chad Petersen. He had a stroke several years ago and now has trouble using his right arm and verbally communicating. He was working at a local Hampton Inn with then-manager Greg Coleman when Coleman left to manage the Staybridge Suites near 78th and Dodge Streets.
“I recruited Chad to come work for us because I think he did a great job,” Coleman said.
Petersen now works the breakfast hour on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
“I can't even count how many times I've had a guest come up to me and say how they enjoyed talking to Chad. People have written me letters saying how much they appreciated Chad and how nice he was. It's kind of a cool deal,” Coleman said.
The fact that Coleman sought out Petersen for the job is the reason QLI nominated Staybridge Suites for the award, said QLI spokesman Carsten Froehlich.
“They give him a lot of responsibilities that he's really proud of. It gives him an outlet to be a productive member of the community,” Froehlich said.
Coleman said he may end up hiring more residents of QLI. “I know QLI has other people very similar to Chad, (who are) fully able to work, and I am very interested in bringing more people on.”
Hy-Vee routinely works with organizations such as the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired and Ollie Webb to find jobs for their clients, Moore said. “Now that I have working relationships with a lot of these (organizations), they will call us when they have an individual who could be a good fit for something we have” and vice versa, HR manager Moore said.
Each Hy-Vee store makes its own decisions when it comes to hiring, but hiring people with disabilities is encouraged companywide.
“The nice thing about Hy-Vee is we all are autonomous so each store can hire, train, develop, as long as it's within corporate parameters. We have nothing short of phenomenal support at, I would say, every level,” Moore said.
Flearl noted that hiring people with disabilities helps the business and the employee, but also helps customers, too. “It ... educates the public that here is a whole population of candidates that people aren't thinking about,” she said.
Okell said the friendly atmosphere at Hy-Vee goes both ways.
“I have to be friendly, but also my co-workers are friendly to me,” she said. “It's just been a great experience so far. I'm happy with it.”
* * * * *
Past Winners of Able Workplace Award
Small business: Universal Information Services Inc.
Large business: West Corp.
Small: Coffee Pot Cafe in Fremont
Large: AMCON Distributing
Small: Kitchen Collectibles
Large: Florence Home Healthcare Center
Small: Great Harvest Bread Co.
Large: Omaha World-Herald
Large: Pacific Springs Village
*The small-business category was not filled these years.