Supply Chain News: Kroger is the Latest Retail Chain to Developed Disabled Worker Program DCs

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From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

Joins Handful of Others with Similar Programs, but Progress Seems Slow Since Walgreens Got the Ball Rolling

SCDigest Editorial Staff

in 2006, retail chain Walgreens and then SVP of Logistics Randy Lewis launched what turned out to be a very successful program to employ disabled workers across its distribution network. (See Walgreens on How to Make a Program for Disabled Workers in the DC a Success.)

Lewis retired in early 2013, but the Walgreens program has continued going strong more than two years after Lewis's departure, though apparently he is still involved in the program in a part-time role.

SCDigest Says:

Disabled worker have clearly shown they have less turnover and are far less likely to call in sick or stay home when it snows in the morning, for example.

On a panel discussing Kroger's new disabled worker program, Howard Green, deputy director, corporate programs for the National Organization on Disability, told an audience at the Warehouse Education and Research Council (WERC) annual conference in Orlando last week that at one Walgreens distribution center in Connecticut, more than 50% of the workers are disabled and - get this - there are some 40 deaf fork truck drivers. How they are able to do that job safely wasn't clearly described.

Since Walgreens pioneering success, a few others have followed, but overall progress seems slow to SCDigest. Other retailers with active programs include Lowes, Starbuck, Toys R Us, and now Kroger.

A single executive in Kroger's mid-south or Nashville region heard about these types of program, and challenged managers in the region to see if such a program could be launched, starting with a single major distribution center in Cleveland, TN. This facility was selected in part because at times Kroger has had recruitment challenges there, moving to a high level of case picking automation to compensate for a challenging local labor pool.

Still, the DC employs about 1000 associates, down from 1400 before the automation, of which 11 are now full-time disabled workers. That may sound like a low number compared to a total workforce of 1000, but Stan Martz, a Kroger human resources manager who was a key player in developing the program at the Cleveland facility, said his goal is to someday get that total up to as many as 100 - and he is confident it can be done.

Actually, more than the current 11 workers have been hired at the DC in the year-plus the program has been in place. A handful have dropped out for a variety of reasons - including performance issues. While Kroger is using a partner organization to recruit and pre-screen potential applicants to ensure as best they can that a worker can do the job, it's never guaranteed.

In fact, Kroger - as with all the other retailers with such programs - does not at all relax its performance standards for a disabled workers - if they can't hit those levels of productivity, eventually they have to be let go. Martz said Kroger - as with the others chains - does have to sometimes make some physical accommodations to the work area, but he said such changes rarely cost more than $100, and almost never over $500. Even the NOD's Green, obviously an advocate for disabled workers, said it is a big mistake to relax standards for disableds, as it in the end will raise a host of other issues.

There were a number of interesting insights from the presentation. Having a good partner to maintain a pipeline of new recruits coming is one key, Martz and Green both said. In Kroger's case, that partner is a vocational rehabilitation service connected to the University of Tennessee. That group tries to find potential workers, prescreens them before introducing them to Kroger, and then provides some coaching services for hired workers on site, especially during the critical first two week period where new employees tend to sink or swim.

In Kroger's case, it actually built a mini-pick line very similar to its real operation so that workers could understand what the job entailed right away, and the University of Tennessee service could gauge how well a given worker might be able to handle the requirements.

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