Untapped power: SRP hires individuals with disabilities, challenging myths, breaking employment barriers

Jul 31, 2023, 4:35 AM | Updated: 9:19 pm

PHOENIX – In the last several years, it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase, “No one wants to work anymore.”

However, Arizona utility provider Salt River Project (SRP) has tapped into one employment source that often has gone overlooked and looks to counter the myth of the ungrateful worker.

In 2019, SRP teamed up with the Delaware-based company The Precisionists, Inc. (TPI) which creates jobs for individuals with disabilities.

Alongside then-Governor Doug Ducey, TPI set out on a goal to create 500 jobs over four years and 1,000 jobs by 2025, for adults with disabilities through its Phoenix Precision Project.

At that time, SRP started with seven employees on the autism spectrum. Currently, the program has grown to 20 employees with disabilities spanning 10 different SRP departments despite a global pandemic and a rocky economic terrain.

The face of TPI

KTAR News 92.3 FM first met Alex Polesky just weeks after he started at SRP through TPI in 2019.

It was his first full-time job, putting an end to infrequent part-time jobs. This is what he said then:

“I was pretty much broke, just constantly, after I graduated high school back in [2011],” Polesky said. “Even with the multiple jobs at once, it was never really enough to financially support myself.”

He is now in a new role as a content specialist and is still feeling exceptionally grateful for the opportunities SRP and TPI have provided.

“I think a lot of people don’t appreciate how important it is to have something, you know, stable like that,” Polesky explained. “A constant where, you know, I know my bills are being paid, I don’t have to worry about food, utilities.”

However, Polesky is honest about the job and it’s by no means his dream. But having a job that provides this level of consistency, he’s now able to focus on bigger goals in his free time.

“I love TPI, I love what they’ve done for me but everyone’s got dreams, right,” he said with a smile.

“I’m in the process of writing a novel right now and I’m not the sort of person that would be a starving artist, so I very much appreciate having a full-time job while I try to indulge in my creativity.”

Those lofty goals are shared by one of his TPI counterparts at SRP, legal assistant Stephen Miner.

Miner is one of the most recent SPR hires through TPI and is among the first in the legal department, working in claims services.

He aims to apply to law school and become an attorney, a goal that is much more in reach.

“I feel like I’m getting more expanded experience, more than just legal,” Miner told KTAR News 92.3 FM. “It’s been helpful in being able to get the experience for handling the pressures and workflow of being an attorney.”

Additionally, his paycheck is going to help pay for law school.

The mutual benefit of diverse hires

Both Polesky and Miner work alongside SRP employees who have become some of TPI’s greatest advocates.

Andrea Williams, records and information governance analyst, was among the first SRP employees to work with TPI hires.

“As soon as I met the team, I just really felt like we all clicked really well,” she said. “It was a little awkward for me at first just because I didn’t want to say or do the wrong thing.”

That was a similar concern for Jason Hovis, manager of claims services, who oversees Miner.

However, it didn’t take long for either of them to find fast friendships with their TPI employees.

“Managing Stephen is like managing anybody else, it’s about understanding,” Hovis said.

Both expressed that this program may seem feel-good in nature, but it’s by no means a handout.

“Stephen’s been a great support to a team that I can say has been understaffed,” Hovis said, “So, he’s not filling a vacant role but providing an addition to a team that needs support.”

“Everybody’s always excited to come to work every day,” Williams said with a grin.

“You can tell if somebody has to call out sick, they’d rather be here. Which is really neat especially because now, we don’t always have employees like that.”

A look at underemployment for adults with disabilities

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022, 21.3 percent of persons with a disability were employed.

Research also found adults with disabilities were “much less likely” to be employed compared to their able-bodied counterparts.

However, it’s not just the lack of employment that can be problematic for adults with disabilities, it’s also the pay.

Legally, adults with disabilities can be paid less than the federal minimum wage which is currently $7.25 an hour.

More than 900 U.S. entities are currently utilizing or attempting to submit paperwork to utilize a subminimum wage.

TPI Project Leader Anne Kirchgessner explained why TPI employees are exceptionally loyal to companies like SRP.

“Many of the people we started with four and a half years ago are still working with [TPI] today, and with all the employment challenges out there, I think that’s pretty rare these days,” Kirchgessner said.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Pass it along to the KTAR News team here.

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Untapped power: SRP hires individuals with disabilities, challenging myths, breaking employment barriers