The Americans with Disabilities Act "is not a regulation," Phil Kosak is fond of saying. "It's a gift." He should know. Before he began hiring disabled workers, back in 1988, his 18-employee Greensboro, N.C., snack-food company was a disaster. Eighty percent of Carolina Fine Foods' workforce turned over every six months, productivity was at 60% of capacity, and on any given day 20% of the employees never showed. So when the local vocational rehabilitation office asked Kosak to participate in a job fair, he thought, "What have I got to lose?"

"I interviewed a dozen people that morning," Kosak says of that first job fair. "There was a level of enthusiasm I hadn't seen before" in job candidates. He hired his first disabled employee that day, and as it turned out, the new hire systematically outperformed the company slackers. Kosak began to think he had hit pay dirt.

Every time he was short-staffed, Kosak went back to the vocational rehab center, which to date has supplied half his workforce. Productivity has increased to 90% of capacity, while turnover and absenteeism are down to 5%. And, notes Kosak, his $2-million company is "growing at 20% a year."

Although Kosak's workers suffer from a range of learning, hearing, sight, and psychological disabilities, they haven't required any special accommodations. "People out there help each other," he says. For instance, an employee with severe cerebral palsy couldn't record his work on a manifest, so his coworkers shifted that responsibility to someone else. A packer who had trouble with numbers was taught to pack in specific patterns. "We saw this type of thing happen naturally," says Kosak.

With productivity and profits up, the company has been able to expand its product line, offer full health benefits and paid vacation to employees, and increase wages. While Kosak enjoys being able to "affect individuals' lives for the better," he argues that hiring the disabled is "strictly a business decision."

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Hiring the Disabled
According to Barbara Judy, director of the national Job Accommodation Network, your local rehabilitation-services office is a good place to recruit disabled workers.

"You'll know exactly what the person's skills are, because rehab services will have tested them," says Judy. And what if the employee doesn't work out? "Many small businesses fear that once they get someone on board, they're there forever," says Judy. "But that's just not the case. You do not have to accept lack of productivity or behavior that you would not accept from others. The ADA provides equal opportunity for hiring as well as firing." To find a rehabilitation-services office near you, call the Job Accommodation Network at 800-526-7234.

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