The president/CEO of the $837 million NuUnion Credit Union said one of his closest friends is the CEO of Peckham Industries, a company that manufactures military uniforms. The company's 1,500-employee base has a high percentage of persons with disabilities among its staffers.
"As I looked around, I thought, '[Other employers] are missing out here,'" Winninger recalled on a visit to Peckham. "They take significant ownership, they take pride in their work, and they have the ability to understand complex issues."
NuUnion has several employees with disabilities, Winninger said. He feels so strongly about their work ethic that he has joined a new Michigan council that educates employers about the benefits of working with such employees. The group is coordinated by Capital Area Michigan Works and the Business Leadership Network of Michigan, two organizations that work with small businesses to hire and accommodate persons with disabilities. NuUnion and 11 other employers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Blue Cross/Blue Shield and the University of Michigan, belong to the Lansing-based council. So far, NuUnion is the only financial institution to join.
Council members will drive the group's agenda and establish its priorities and actions with a focus on education, advocacy and improving businesses' bottom lines, said Alicia Paterni, disability program navigator at Capital Area Michigan Works. The council will also focus on partnering with businesses of all sizes, particularly small businesses that may not have access or expertise in the benefits of hiring people with disabilities, particularly with the tax incentives. Paterni said CAMW has funding to provide on-the-job training and programs to upgrade the skills of current employees.
"Right now, in these economic times, people with disabilities are pushed to the back of the line," Paterni said. "And sometimes employers looking for the best employees may not want to deal with the costs for accommodations. I am a double amputee, and I have been able to work at Michigan Works for two years [without accommodations]."
Paterni said she hopes employers on the new council who have hired persons with disabilities they can share their success stories and break down myths.
"It just makes good business sense. It's proven that they stay on the job longer. They're just so happy to have employment."
In 2006, CAMW received a grant to hire a disability program navigator. Paterni said now that the grant's funding is coming to an end, the state of Michigan has not come up with a sustainable way to keep the effort going. CAMW and Business Leadership Network of Michigan will provide the funding for one year. After that, Paterni said other sources will be explored including grants or dues to keep the council going.
Winninger said seeing how diligently the employees constructed the military uniforms during his tour of Peckham reminded him of his Army days and how highly constructed the gear was.
"Most of the clothing they make has a number of layers to protect people from very cold weather.
It's high-level stuff," Winninger said. "If given a chance, [employees with disabilities] will guard [their work] with everything they got. A big part of it for employers is looking past a physical disability to see the ability."