A recycling plant and manufacturing facility are allowing adults with intellectual disabilities to reach their potential—with the help of Local 306 members
On any given day, the Eastman Recycling Services (ERS) plant in Steinbach, Manitoba, is buzzing with the sound of tools, machinery, chatter—and high-fives. Yes, high-fives. That’s because this plant is more than just a recycling facility. Many of the workers employed at the plant have some form of disability.
ERS is part of Envision Community Living, a non-profit organization that provides support and services to persons living with an intellectual disability. While ERS is busy collecting, sorting, and processing recyclable materials for shipment to markets, the ultimate purpose is to provide meaningful work and community connections for the people supported.
ENVISION EMPLOYS OVER 40 Local 306 members who work as direct support workers (DSWs) at the recycling plant and at Kindale Industries, which is also part of Envision. At both ERS and Kindale, Local 306 members work alongside supported individuals.
“The people we support are the highlight,” says Mathew Cseh, a truck driver and DSW who works at Eastman. “At the end of the day, they’re high-fiving, laughing, joking, and leaving feeling like they’ve had a good day. It’s really rewarding.”
At the recycling plant, Local 306 members run the trucks, forklift, baler, and help on the sorting line. Supported individuals and labourers work on the sorting line and help with pickup.
“I do the sorting on the line, but I also take care of the supported individuals,” says Roger Moquin, a DSW at the plant. “I help them cope with the work environment and focus on the job at hand. I’m on the busier station—sorting through everything and taking pop cans, lids, and pop bottles out as quickly as I can. So it’s usually a very busy day, especially when you’re trying to focus on helping out clients.”
At Kindale, employees are engaged in woodworking, sewing, screw and fastener painting, packaging, product assembly, and laundry services. Supported individuals go to work each day creating and packaging various products—everything from survey stakes to survival bags.
Whether at ERS or Kindale, the atmosphere is usually fun. It’s a fulfilling place to work.
“I just really like being around everybody here,” says Tanja Enns a DSW at Kindale. “If you’re having a bad day, the clients will try to find a way to make you smile.”
“A lot of people we help feel fulfilled,” says Jeannine Blanchette, also a DSW at Kindale. “You can tell because there’s always a cheer when we get a task done—whether it’s sorting nuts and bolts or packaging. Everybody’s proud of themselves for having done it, which is important. It’s rewarding.”
Of course some days are more challenging than others.
“Sometimes, an individual is upset and it’s hard for them to explain what’s wrong,” says Theresa Petkau, a supervisor working in Kindale’s hardware sorting room. “That’s why it’s key that we know the individuals so that we can figure out what’s wrong and how to solve it.”
“In some ways, it’s not unlike the public,” adds Allen Dearborn, who works as a truck driver and woodworking supervisor at Kindale. “Everybody has different personalities, skills, and abilities. It’s just a matter of figuring that out. Once you know what you’re dealing with, it’s much easier to help take care of the client’s needs.”
THE QUESTION OF HOW TO employ adults with intellectual disabilities is currently a hot-button issue in the world of social work. Workplaces staffed primarily with adults with intellectual disabilities and their workers are going out of vogue.
Instead, there is a greater push toward integrating individuals into workplaces in the community. But it can be challenging to find employers who are able to meet the needs of the individuals. This is one of the reasons the DSWs at Kindale and Eastman believe their workplaces are so important.
“We get to help these individuals have a normal life at work,” says Roger. “Most other companies would just brush them off because they figure they can’t do it. But I’ve seen some of these clients work harder than most people. They’ve got the drive.”
Envision does seek to ensure their clients get out into the community for events, education, and to find work if possible.
“I’ve been here over 14 years,” says Mathew. “Things have changed from a group mindset where you had a lot of supported individuals, and very few staff, to a program that’s been set up for more individual support for each participant. It’s not that they are at the recycling plant and that’s it. They are at the plant a lot of times, but sometimes they’re taken to literacy classes. When I first started, none of that existed.”
At Kindale, there is a resource room with computers and educational programs. There are also areas of the building that are set up to mimic various work environments. For instance, Kindale has a cafeteria with a restaurant-style kitchen where individuals can learn the skills they need to become employed in food service in the community.
Thus, Kindale serves a dual purpose—it gives individuals skills that they can use out in the community, while providing meaningful work for those who are not working in the community.
ENVISION, LIKE ALL OTHER SUPPORT services, faces the ever-present challenge of underfunding. The government only provides a limited amount of money for each supported individual, meaning that wages in the entire industry are low and staff turnover is high.
“You can get the same amount of money working at places like McDonalds and do a lot less work,” says Mathew.
“Staff turnover is a real struggle,” says Jeannine. “You want to see the best for the people who you’re working with. We’re struggling to get everybody trained and then keep people we know who are really amazing.
“The government doesn’t generally see this type of work as a worthwhile thing to put their money into—it’s on the low end of their priorities. tIf they recognized its importance, then conditions would improve.”
This is key—not only for the workers, but for the clients.
“If you increase the pay, you increase the number of staff who stay longer,” says Jeannine. “This increases people’s support—and it would create such a better atmosphere for everybody.
“Staff turnover is difficult for the clients because people are coming in and out of their lives so often. It makes them upset, and they have more difficulties in their everyday life emotionally. This would improve with more long term staff.”
Since wages are tied to funding, there is little that a union can do when bargaining with the employer. However, there are other ways to improve staff morale and reduce turnover. That’s why Envision employees turned to CLAC in 2014.
Allen and Mathew, two of the organizers, who are now stewards, felt that increased communication, improved policies, and benefits would go a long way. And they felt that CLAC was the union to help them achieve these things.
“I liked the idea of getting CLAC as a union here because I think we needed to improve advocating for employees and improve policies,” says Allen. “There’s a high turnover of staff here, and I didn’t like the fact that a lot of good people were leaving. Some people leave after a year or even half a year. They just get trained and fit in and then quit because of policy and pay. That’s not good for the company, and it’s not good for our clients. So with a union in place, hopefully, there’ll be less turnover.”
For Jen Johnson, a labourer at Eastman, the changes brought by CLAC mean that she now has a proper job description.
“I was classified as a casual worker—even though I was working full time. Now, I’m considered full time, and I have guide- lines around my job. Plus, I have benefits, which I didn’t have before.”
For Mathew, one of the biggest struggles was communication.
“Our relationship with management wasn’t good,” he says. “There was a lack of communication. That has improved since joining CLAC.”
THE JOB OF A DSW IS both challenging and rewarding.
“It can be emotionally tiring,” says Jeannine. “But I love that I get to hang out with people who are genuinely fun. I get to bring my own talent and personality and people respond to that. It’s awesome to be able to be myself and then go home and feel like I’ve made a difference in somebody’s day.
“I wish more people had a chance to experience it. So many people have negative stereotypes about those with disabilities. They have their own abilities and personalities that are so lovely. It’s amazing for me when I have the chance to show others just how wonderful these people are and start breaking boundaries."
Envision began 60 years ago, in 1956. Back then, children with intellectual disabilities weren’t allowed to attend public school, so a group of parents built Kindale School for these disenfranchised children.
In 1966, the public school system finally allowed children with intellectual disabilities to attend public school. But by that time, some of the children from Kindale were already too old to attend public school.
The parents decided to establish a vocational centre that would give their children job opportunities, so Kindale School morphed into what is now Kindale Industries. Ultimately, the dream was that their children would be able to work in the community as active contributors and participants in community life.
But for many years, there was a barrier to integration. Those with special needs would work at Kindale, which they found fulfilling and enjoyable, but wouldn’t get the opportunity to work in the community.
Instead, they spent much of their time working in the large, welcoming building that Kindale became. It includes a wood working room, where products including stakes and pallets are made; two hardware rooms, where hardware is sorted and packaged; a paint chamber, where hardware and other products are painted; a sewing/packaging/general room, where flyers, survival bags, and anything else is packaged; a cafeteria, where lunch is made and served; and a resource room, where individuals can use computers for learning purposes.
Today, the government encourages employers to hire those with special needs. Thus, some clients at Envision now work at Kindale for part of the day, do learning activities for another part, and also go into the community—sometimes as paid workers at other companies.
Local 306 members working at Kindale support the individuals at the facility and out in the community.
Envision developed Eastman Recycling Services in 1992. ERS provides curbside pickup, sorting, and baling of recycling for Steinbach and other southeastern Manitoba communities.
Since the beginning, the goal was that it would be something that people living with an intellectual disability would be able to do, and that it would also provide some benefit to the community. It would provide a link to the community—people would be providing a valuable service to the community, in addition to doing meaningful work.
ERS employs direct support workers—who work on the line or in the plant but also help labourers and supported individuals. These groups work together to run the plant and are overseen by two managers who get the contracts for collecting and selling the recycling, and who oversee the daily operations.
Both Kindale and ERS seek to balance the services for individuals—their primary goal—while also maintaining a sustainable business. The government only provides some funding required for the support of individuals, and the facilities themselves need to make enough money to remain operational.
Do you clean out your containers before you recycle them? Do you throw everything in the recycling — even garbage?
Next time, think about the fact that someone at the recycling depot has to deal with it.
“Dealing with garbage is the worst part of the job,” says Mathew Hiebert, a baler at Eastman. “You get a lot of grimy stuff. If the item has oil on it or other contaminants, we throw it out. If it’s wet or muddy, we can still recycle it.”
But it’s still gross.