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Reception team members from the Northwest Center take a turn on the “Banista team,” prepping for Amazon’s Summer Picnic at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field. Team members spend two weeks on the Community Banana Stand before returning to Amazon desk duties. (Back row, from left: Jonny and Alissa. Front row: John, Mat, Melinda, Coverly and Clinton). (Northwest Center Photo)

With so many years of growth, it’s not always easy for Amazon to find the talented, dedicated workers it needs. And that includes not only hot-shot engineers and managers — but also employees who support those workers and perform other fundamental, operational roles.

So Amazon found an innovative way to fill those spots — and now other tech companies are doing so, too — through organizations that work with disabled employees.

Northwest Center, a Seattle-based nonprofit supporting mentally and physically disabled adults and children, provides roughly 120 employees for Amazon. The employees work in a variety of positions, including the reception team that staffs front desks, a team that assists with office moves and setting up, and a team that answers questions about employee transportation benefits. They’ve even assembled the legendary Amazon “door desks.”

At least 15 percent of the Northwest Center workers employed at Amazon are disabled, while others do not disclose their disability or are not disabled; employment of the workers benefits the 52-year-old nonprofit that assists disabled children to adults.

John Schoettler, the company’s global real estate director, once served on Northwest Center’s board and launched the partnership 16 years ago. It’s gone well.

“I am very pleased because they continue to always meet our high bar,” Schoettler said. “They are a valued vendor that we enjoy working with very much. We can always count on them. As we continue to grow, they’re continuing to grow with us.”

For about three years, Jacob has worked on Microsoft’s Redmond campus at Café 50. He landed the job through Northwest Center’s school-to-work program upon finishing high school. Jacob enjoys being part of the cafeteria’s team, said Northwest Center staff, and he often talks about the relationships that he has built with coworkers, customers, management and Northwest Center employees. (Northwest Center Photo)

More recently, Microsoft and Zulily also joined with Northwest Center to find employees.

Since 2013, Microsoft has worked with 13 local agencies — including Northwest Center — that serve disabled clients. About 200 employees from these organizations are working in Microsoft cafeterias, reception, mailrooms, janitorial positions, landscaping and warehouses.

Zulily, a Seattle-based online retail site, employs three workers from Northwest Center and is looking to hire a fourth. The two-year partnership has placed employees in facilities roles helping stock and clean up rooms, and repacking samples sent in to be photographed and posted on the Zulily site.

All three tech companies say that they’re eager to diversify their workforce by employing people with disabilities, which can include mental disabilities, hearing impairment and other physical challenges, and dyslexia.

“Our local community is improved when all people get access to jobs,” said Stefanie Mottola, studio supervisor for Zulily, who added that other employees benefit from the opportunity to mentor these coworkers.

And the gains to the disabled workers are huge personally, professionally and financially.

Even with government support, nearly 29 percent of disabled, working-age Americans live below the poverty level, according to recent U.S. Census data. That line is set at $12,082 for one person.

“The majority of people with disabilities live at or below the poverty line,” said Taryn Farley, community employment services manager for Northwest Center. Employing these workers “helps them be more self-sufficient and they’re helping others. They are successful through work.

“A lot of people who work take it for granted,” she said. People can equate adulthood with “being able to work. It’s the way we interface with people and connect with people in our communities in the biggest way.”

Northwest Center works with disabled employees to assess their skills and arrange volunteer positions to evaluate how someone does in a workplace setting. They help their clients prepare job resumes, practice for interviews and find potential employers. The nonprofit will help train workers and support them in their jobs once employed. The level of service depends on how much assistance a client needs, Farley said.

“We can really know the person and where their skill sets are and where their barriers are to make a good placement,” she said.

The organization’s goal is to place 100 workers this year at tech companies and elsewhere. Thirty similar agencies are operating in King County.

Amazon is looking to expand its employment of Northwest Center workers, potentially adding jobs in operations and fulfillment of online orders.

Alejandro, a Northwest Center @ Amazon Move Ambassador, double checks his list for accuracy on an upcoming move. Alejandro has worked in the job for more than three years. The team is expected to grow to 20 by the end of the year. (Northwest Center Photo)

Microsoft is expanding their employment of disabled workers nationally, teaming up additional agencies to place workers on their campuses in Texas, North Carolina and North Dakota.

“It’s going amazingly,” said Holly Warnick, director of account operations for CBRE, the Microsoft vendor that started the program in Redmond and is leading the expansion. “We’re able to evangelize how we’re doing this to other organizations.”

Part of the program’s success, said Warnick, is finding support from executives to ensure widespread buy-in.

Schoettler suggested that other companies interested in forming this sort of partnership start with a few jobs, then ramp up from there.

“Look at a project where they may have a specific need and contact an organization like Northwest Center and walk them through the program,” he said. “I would be very confident to say that they would be surprised by the capabilities and diverse capabilities of their workforce.”

He said that many employees who start part-time jobs facilitated through Northwest Center end up employed full-time.

“It’s very meaningful to feel a part and feel productive in our society,” Schoettler said. “They shouldn’t be treated differently, they should be treated like everyone else.

“They have skills and we have work, and we put the two together and it’s an amazing recipe.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated 03/09/17 to clarify the percentage of Northwest Center employees working at Amazon who are disabled.

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