Florida Agency for Persons with Disabilities

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12 Businesses Honored as Exceptional Employers

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Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD), Blind Services, and Vocational Rehabilitation recognized 12 businesses with an Exceptional Employer Award for hiring people with disabilities. The 17th annual celebration was held at the Florida Capitol on October 24 as part of recognizing October as Disability Employment Awareness Month as declared by Governor Ron DeSantis’ proclamation.

The Exceptional Employer Awards are presented to companies that exhibit a strong commitment to employing and retaining people with unique abilities. Event sponsors were the Able Trust and RESPECT of Florida.

The 12 award-winning businesses are:

Beck Automotive Group of Palatka
City of Cape Coral
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Hilton Garden Inn Fort Walton Beach
Kohl’s Tallahassee
Lighthouse Works, Inc. of Orlando
Pinecrest Bakery of Miami
Pitney Bowes, Inc. of Jacksonville
Rise & Nye’s of Sarasota
Stenner Pump Company of Jacksonville
Winslow LifeRaft Company of Lake Suzy
Xtreme Action Park of Ft. Lauderdale

APD Director Barbara Palmer said, “We are so very excited to honor these outstanding companies for their commitment to employing a diverse workforce. These businesses know that individuals with unique abilities are some of the most reliable employees within their organization. A good return on investment is what hiring a person with a disability is—it just makes good business sense.”

“Under Governor DeSantis’ decisive leadership, we will continue to promote an economic environment that strengthens Florida businesses and fuels job creation for all Floridians,” said Secretary Dane Eagle of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO). “DEO is proud to support all Floridians in finding meaningful employment through great programs like the Florida Unique Abilities Partner Program. We are pleased to recognize businesses in our state that demonstrate their support and commitment to the independence of Floridians with unique abilities.”

“For 17 years, the Exceptional Employer Awards have been highlighting businesses that embrace inclusivity in their hiring practices,” said Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Director Brent McNeal. “When people with disabilities participate in competitive, integrated employment we all win. Florida’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation has been connecting employers to qualified candidates of all abilities for over 90 years. We’re proud to participate in the awards ceremony again this year and are looking forward to celebrating these successful outcomes for our customers and Florida businesses.”

“We are pleased to celebrate the contributions of these exemplary employers,” said Division of Blind Services Director Robert Doyle. “They continually open the workforce door wider for those with blindness, visual impairments, and other disabilities and intentionally provide opportunities for persons with disabilities to excel.”

“The demand for skilled workers continues to grow in Florida, and we see even greater opportunities for employers to hire Floridians with disabilities, not just as a practical solution, but one that will strengthen Florida businesses,” said CareerSource Florida President and CEO Michelle Dennard. “CareerSource Florida commends businesses that recognize the value of disability workforce inclusion, as it is a brighter future for all when it includes employment for people with disabilities.”

strong>The Able Trust President and CEO Allison Chase said, “We at The Able Trust congratulate the 2022 Exceptional Employer Award recipients. These companies and individuals are leading the way in making Florida a more inclusive state for workers with disabilities.”

Speakers at the event included Piggly Wiggly of Quincy employee Brenton Pete, star graduate from Arc of the Bay Culinary Institute and Empowerment Café Chef Kate Stanford, and Live Better, Inc., President Patrick H. Martin who shared with the audience what having a job means to them.
Here is information on the 12 winning companies:Beck Automotive Group  
This auto dealership, located in Palatka, has a long history of hiring and supporting people with unique abilities. One employee with a disability recently retired after 40 years on the job. Another employee with unique abilities has been on the job more than 20 years. The car dealership is the host site for a Project Search class for adults with disabilities run by the Arc of Putnam County. Project Search is a nine-month training program to teach people with disabilities the skills needed to be successful in a work environment. Eight individuals with disabilities recently graduated from Project Search with three graduates being hired by Beck Automotive Group. Beck has agreed to be the host site for a second Project Search class. Beck prides itself on its welcoming culture and developing better leaders and managers. In addition to the Project Search participants, Beck has 10 more current employees with unique abilities.

City of Cape Coral
This city in Southwest Florida has been employing people with disabilities for 30 years. There are currently 48 people with unique abilities working for the City of Cape Coral in a variety of positions. One person works at Pops Café. About 40 individuals work in the recycling program and in the park maintenance program. For the recycling program, the workers travel around the city collecting the recycling from various buildings. The city wants its parks to be inviting to visitors, so these employees lay down mulch, ensure trails are clean and nice, and maintain all of the buildings. The city is also flexible in scheduling shifts to ensure its employees are able to access transportation services.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Many of us know about Winter the dolphin with a prosthetic tail that made the Clearwater Marine Aquarium home and was the subject of the popular movie featuring Harry Connick, Junior, called Dolphin Tale and has since passed away. Another dolphin named Hope, who was featured in Dolphin Tale 2, continues to bring thousands of people with disabilities to Clearwater to see and swim with her. The aquarium now has five dolphins with some type of disability. People with disabilities can identify with their struggles. The public can apply to interact with them as part of the aquarium’s CMA Inspires Program. The aquarium has four staff, two volunteers, and one intern with unique abilities. Over the past two years, more than 30 people with unique abilities have been a part of the aquarium’s staff.

Hilton Garden Inn Fort Walton Beach
This hotel has partnered with Vocational Rehabilitation since 2019 offering on-the-job training opportunities to young people. This employer hired five individuals when they completed the VR program, with two full-time employees continuing to be employed.
Additionally, they employ two more people with unique abilities. The hotel invites past VR participants back to work during the busy season since they already know the ropes. On August 11, the Hilton Garden Inn became the host site for Project Search in Okaloosa County with six students enrolled in the program. They are all having a blast learning about each other.

Kohl’s Tallahassee
This department store employs three people with unique abilities employed. One of them has worked at Kohl’s for more than two years. These employees are sales associates. They assist customers, fold merchandise, clean up dressing rooms, and return merchandise to the correct rack. Kohl’s truly values these individuals’ work ethic, dependability, and eagerness to learn. Their veteran employee even trains new hires with disabilities, giving her a sense of leadership.

Lighthouse Works, Inc. of Orlando
This organization, located in Orlando, has a long history of serving the blind and those with low vision. They operate several call centers where many of the employees are visually impaired.
180 of the 428 people employed by Lighthouse Works have some type of disability. This employer ensures all computers are accessible for someone with a visual disability. JAWS and ZoomText are installed on machines and additional software may be installed to access the necessary platforms or systems for the job. Their offices offer talking vending machines, high-contrast walls, and tactile maps. Individuals are regularly promoted from within, with 21 leaders within the organization having some type of disability.

Pinecrest Bakery of Miami
This Latin inspired delicious bakery has 20 locations in Dade and Monroe counties. There are eight individuals with unique abilities employed at the various bakery locations and headquarters.
These employees have a variety of jobs. Some make party trays, sandwiches, and cut Cuban bread for toast then butter it for customers. One worker is in the manufacturing department, one person cleans up, and another employee works in the bread department making bread. All of them are busy contributing to the success of the bakery. The company owner has embraced inclusion and ensured a cultural change from the top down.
Bakery employees have demonstrated and been exemplary natural supports for employees with unique abilities.

Pitney Bowes, Inc. of Jacksonville
This organization continues to step up its efforts to hire people with disabilities. Pitney Bowes has eight individuals working at its distribution and sorting center in Jacksonville, which is 10 percent of its workforce. This business has been focused on employing people with unique abilities since 2015. At one point 25 percent of its workforce were individuals with disabilities. This business is opening a facility in Orlando and plans to continue hiring applicants with disabilities as an integral part of the workforce. Pitney Bowes employees without disabilities say they are inspired and motivated by those with disabilities.

Rise & Nye’s of Sarasota
This coffee shop, bakery, and ice cream parlor is located in Sarasota and is committed to hiring lots of people with unique abilities. Rise and Nye’s has 40 employees, with 35 having significant disabilities. This business was opened in 2020 by longtime advocate Beaver Shriver, who is related by marriage to the founder of Special Olympics, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and his business partner. Rise and Nye’s employees with unique abilities make coffee and baked goods, run the cash register, serve ice cream, clean up, train new employees, and whatever else is needed. There are plans to start a food truck, allowing more people with disabilities to have a job and earn a paycheck.

Stenner Pump Company
This Jacksonville business has a long-standing relationship with Pine Castle which provides services to people with disabilities. This company has been employing individuals with unique abilities for more than 22 years and has strengthened that focus over the past seven years. Through an arrangement with Pine Castle, Stenner Pump Company currently employs 10 people to assemble parts. The company also has one fulltime employee with disabilities onsite. Stenner Pump Company president says we gain more than we give when we hire individuals with disabilities.

Winslow LifeRaft Company of Lake Suzy
This business, located in Southwest Florida, has a strong partnership with Vocational Rehabilitation (VR). Winslow LifeRaft Company has four people with disabilities currently in their workforce. Over the past four years, more than 17 individuals have worked at the factory. Three VR customers are participating in their on-the-job training program. Winslow LifeRaft employees help these trainees learn the soft skills needed in the working world. They provide coaching to the individuals to help them be successful in the workplace. After completing the training program, these trainees are able to secure permanent positions.
This company has duplicated the on-the-job training program at another factory in Indiana and is piloting the program at its Colorado Springs facility. Company leadership is very supportive of hiring individuals with unique abilities because they have proven to be responsible, reliable, and hard-working employees.

Xtreme Action Park of Ft. Lauderdale
Located in Fort Lauderdale, Xtreme Action Park is the largest indoor entertainment venue in Florida with go kart racing, bowling, a ropes course, a trampoline park, roller skating, laser tag, escape rooms, and more. Xtreme Action Park currently employs nine individuals with unique abilities. Over the years, they have partnered with Vocational Rehabilitation to hire many qualified applicants. These employees are doing a variety of tasks. The company tries to match an individual’s strengths with the task and put them in the best position to succeed. Xtreme Action Park allows employees extra time to complete tasks and a flexible work schedule due to transportation issues. They also provide a specific parking area for these employees to use. This business has shown patience, support, understanding, flexibility, and friendship to all of its employees.

You may watch the entire ceremony here.

Click Here to view the photo gallery from the event.

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