Monday, April 11, 2005

Quality Labor

Worthy of a read... A company in Hartselle, Alabama provides real paying jobs for 72 developmentally disabled workers. Although they're facing tough times, they pledge to continue searching for contracts to keep the workers occupied. The workers do quality work, and the business operates totally on its own (no government assistance).

Twins' Labor In Jeopardy
Terrell in red despite quality, timely work
By Jay Wilson

Let Roy Fortenberry tell you why he wants to keep a job that he could lose if his company continues losing business.

Workers at Terrell Industries perform various duties for local companies such as General Electric. "I'm physically challenged ... a slow learner," Roy said. "To come here to work, it's an honor. Ten years from now I'm going to be right here, and that's a lot to say about a company."

Fortenberry and his twin, Troy, 24, are developmentally disabled as are their 72 co-workers at Terrell Industries in Hartselle.

The company's volunteer board members struggle to find more work for the twins and their co-workers.

Terrell hires employees with trainable mental handicaps, said Linda Fuhlrodt, executive director and one of five staff members.

Terrell pays employees for repetitious duties such as packaging parts in plastic bags, or counting and sorting gaskets. They work for Delphi Steering Systems, General Electric, Defco Inc. and Summit Tree Stands LLC, among others.

"They are as normal as you and me except for that one little something in their brain," Fuhlrodt said. "They are smarter, sometimes, than they get credit for being."

She said the jobs benefit local businesses, but Terrell has to pay its bills. The non-profit company must bring in enough contracts to cover expenses.

The Fortenberry twins like telling about a company that gives them an opportunity to work. Troy Fortenberry could hardly contain himself when he and his brother walked into a room for an interview. Their red hair, fair skin and glasses are identical, and so are their attitudes.

"This company has been a tremendous blessing to me," Troy said. "We have tremendous board members that go out and try to find us work."

Board President Charles Hough, retired General Motors Corp. employee, feels the pressure.

"We need some business desperately," he said. "We're currently losing $1,000 to $2,000 each month, and we need more volume to pick this up."

Terrell is going to have a problem by about July, according to Hough. He said while the company owns its building and property, the overhead would force the board to borrow money.

The total 2005 operating budget is $275,000. Hough said the board is projecting a $15,000 loss for the year if it doesn't find more production contracts.

He said he doesn't understand why it is difficult to find work for the 18- to 66-year-old employees. Hough said all have "a child's spirit."

Using its own driver and tractor-trailer rig, Terrell picks up materials from companies and returns the finished product.

"That's a big advantage for these companies," Hough said. "They don't have to do anything but pay for the services and supply the materials."

Barri Edmondson is frustrated about Terrell's struggle. The president of Decatur's Defco, she understands what's at stake, perhaps more than anyone. Her 25-year-old son, Chris, was born developmentally disabled. He works at Terrell.

"We need more work," she said. "Terrell tries so hard to be self-supportive, and it's tough."

Terrell does not accept government money. Edmondson said this is intentional.

"Without government money this is actual work and not a handout," she said. She said that is how Terrell employees and their parents feel.

Defco sends work to Terrell, but that work is ending because of contract changes between Defco and its customer. Edmondson said she hopes more companies will learn about and use Terrell's work force.

She said businesses are afraid the "kids" may do shoddy work or fail to complete projects on time.

"That's not a problem," said Hough. "Companies are not hesitant."

But Decatur's General Electric had some initial concerns. GE considered contracting Terrell to bend copper tubing for refrigerators, but the company hesitated, according to communications manager and quality systems leader Steven Turner.

"The forming of these tubes impacts the quality and performance of the refrigerator," Turner said. "But after a visit to Terrell Industries, we were impressed with the detail and pride the employees demonstrated as they performed their jobs."

Turner said GE is proud of its relationship with Terrell. It is one that will continue, he said. The relationship began in 1996, and Turner said it is a "win-win experience."

The board members visit local industries to ask them for contract work, Hough said. They invite company leaders to Terrell to meet employees and observe their work. Any hesitations usually go away. "They do their jobs without distractions ... they love what they do."

Many people donate money, and Terrell is a United Way recipient. Outside of contracts, Terrell received about $50,000 last year through donations, fund-raisers, an auction, a raffle and a golf tournament.

Donations aren't covering the shortfall between work and expenses.

"We need all the help we can get," said Fuhlrodt. "We guarantee on-time delivery and usually work a bit cheaper and more accurate."

Roy Fortenberry and Troy Fortenberry credit Terrell and Fuhlrodt with being there for them when no one would hire them. "She's just one tremendous person," Troy said.

Mark Griffin stressed the importance of companies like Terrell. He is executive director of The Arc of Morgan County, an advocacy agency for people with intellectual, cognitive and developmental disabilities.

"Work is not a money function for these folks," Griffin said. "It's who they are."

Edmondson said Chris' excitement about working awakens him at 3 a.m. to get ready for his job. Roy Fortenberry said he gets up early to think about his job by himself.

"And let me tell you ... It's peace and quiet!" he said. "I sit on the front porch and think about what I'm going to do for the day and what I'm going to say."

The twins share a home with their grandmother. They said she taught them to cook, clean and do everything for themselves. They are high-functioning.

They drive themselves to work, arriving between 7:45 and 8 a.m. daily. On weekends they do what every working person does: They relax.

"Weekends are nothing but wrestling, wrestling, wrestling," Troy Fortenberry said. "I referee wrestling!"

Roy Fortenberry avoids the sport. He sings.

The twins are like most siblings, picking at each other when the chance occurs.

"It's fun to have a brother around," Troy Fortenberry said. "Especially when he thinks the world about you."

"Yeah, when you get your attitude right," Roy Fortenberry quipped.

Griffin said Terrell fills a niche, helping people who want to work but are not ready for the mainstream. Fuhlrodt said people call daily for work but she can't hire more.

"In Alabama, more than 2,000 people are waiting for services like Terrell's," Griffin said. "These companies can do a lot of great things if they receive the support they need. What's standing in the way is lack of contracts."

The ultimate goal, according to Griffin and other experts, is to transition the developmentally disabled from centers like Terrell to the competitive work force.

"If you're physically challenged, don't look at that ... look at the inside, and if you can go out and get a job, go for it!" said Roy Fortenberry. "We're slow learners, but we're still in our right mind."