Las Vegas Sun

November 14, 2018

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Troubled economy hurts jobs program for disabled

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Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Home News

Kevin Schmidt, 22, prepares beverage condiment packages for Harrah’s Corporation on the main floor of the Employment Training Center at Opportunity Village.

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Manning the conveyer belt, production associate Kelly Cooksey seals one of 200,000 condiment packs prepared monthly for Harrah's Corporation in the Employment Training Center at Opportunity Village.

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Charles Bender III works through a pile of metal and rubber pieces, constructing sound-isolation inserts for a large-quantity fulfillment contract for Pack International at Opportunity Village.

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The valley's economic woes have put a pinch on the donations that fund charitable organizations, but at Opportunity Villages' Walters Family Campus in Henderson, people aren't looking for a handout — they're looking for work.

The slowdown has dramatically reduced the amount of contract work that Opportunity Village has for its two employment training centers — one at the Henderson site and the other at the main office on 6300 W. Oakey Blvd. in Las Vegas. That threatens the income of the more than 350 intellectually disabled adults who work at them, officials said.

A number of companies have pulled major contracts from the centers to keep the work in-house and reduce costs, said Opportunity Village sales coordinator Rachel Allen, who is trying to find work for the agency's clients.

However, Allen said, they have it backward.

"(The companies) think they're saving themselves money to do it that way, but they're really not," she said. "What they were paying us pennies to do, they're now paying an hourly employee to do, and they don't do it nearly as fast as we do."

Clients have been reassigned to the center's few remaining contracts, but there is not enough work to go around, she said. On one contract, assembling condiment packages for Harrah's, workers are months ahead of schedule because there is simply nothing else for them to do.

With less money coming in, it's being spread thin between the workers, Keith Copeland, a manager at the Henderson employment training center, said.

"A lot of these guys can't communicate like you or I can, but they've learned how to let me know when they're not happy with their paycheck," Copeland said. "And believe me, I'm hearing it."

In Henderson, about 150 Opportunity Village clients work each day in the facility's assembly, doing packaging and document destruction. In recent months, the amount of contract work has dropped 60 percent in packaging and 70 percent in assembly, while an entire shift has been eliminated from document destruction — the most lucrative and highly sought job.

Henry Coffman has been working on a project for Wynn Las Vegas, putting promotional tags on water bottles and shrink-wrapping them in bundles, for about six weeks. He said he loves his job, but that his paycheck lately has only been "OK."

"The work comes and goes," he said.

To make matters worse, Opportunity Village plans to open a third work center in the southwest part of the valley in November — and while the facility will clear everyone off of the agency's waiting list, it has no work lined up for those who have been waiting.

"We don't have contracts to house them," Allen said. "When the new facility opens, it's going to be difficult."

Beyond employment, the profits that the employment centers generate are used to fund other programs at Opportunity Village, such as Pride, a free day-care service for individuals with extreme disabilities. The agency also sponsors dances and other social activities for its clients.

Allen and Copeland are appealing to local businesses to evaluate their operations and see if there isn't some work they can outsource to Opportunity Village.

"Any production or assembly contracts, we love," Allen said. "Any mailing contracts, we love. Basically, anything that (workers) can physically do, we'll take it."

Jeremy Twitchell can be reached at 990-8928 or [email protected].

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