Brandon Mason has only been in his new position at UniFirst since May, but he has already become a beloved part of the team in his sew and seal department.
Mason, a 30-year-old with high-functioning autism, was the first client of Employment Opportunities, a division of Puzzle Pieces that focuses on placing individuals with intellectual disabilities in positions within local businesses and industry.
Prior to joining the team at UniFirst, Mason worked at HESTC, a sheltered workshop in Henderson, for 10 years where he assembled breathalyzer tests. Sheltered workshops, which offer employment to those with disabilities, typically pay well below minimum wage.
Blaire Linn Neighbors, director of Employment Opportunities, said Mason, who is high-functioning, was capable of much more than his previous job, where workers could take home paychecks as low as $2.
When Mason’s case manager and counselor contacted Neighbors looking for supportive employment services for their client, she brought him on and began the four-phase placement process.
In what Neighbors calls the discovery phase, she learned Mason wanted repetition in his job, which helped her identify an assembly line as the best fit for her first client. She then helped him through the development phase, training him through mimicked tasks similar to those he would see in a factory setting.
With those phases completed, the next was to find a job. Neighbors originally found a position with a different factory, but the timing wasn’t right, she said. A connection to UniFirst General Manager Dave Roberts led to Mason’s ultimate hire.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better place for Brandon to work,” Neighbors said.
According to Roberts, the partnership with Employment Opportunities aligns with UniFirst’s desire to be an employer of choice and one that values diversity and inclusion.
“Brandon is a beloved member of our team as our team partners have really enjoyed working alongside of him from day one,” Roberts said. “He embodies each of our core values at UniFirst: Customer Focus, Respect for Others and Commitment to Quality.”
On the sew and seal team, Mason serves as a strapper, meaning he straps bundles of uniforms together, even conducting a final quality check.
“Everyone was so excited when he caught his first error,” said UniFrist Human Resource Manager Kerry Bailey.
Within the last week the sew and seal department has had to work overtime to fulfill a 300,000-piece order. Bailey said UniFirst and Employment Opportunities wanted to keep Mason under the same requirements as other employees. According to Bailey, the newest member of the sew and seal department has embraced not only the overtime, but everything that has been thrown his way.
“I would love to have 100 more Brandons,” Bailey said. “He comes to work every day and brings good will our employees.”
According to Bailey, bringing Mason on board has had a ripple effect within the company, with many asking for someone with Employment Opportunities to be placed in their department.
“Our employees are proud to work for a place that would hire someone with intellectual disabilities,” Bailey said. “We haven’t had to make actual accommodations for Brandon because our team has helped nurture him and helped him understand his tasks.”
Employment Opportunities has 18 individuals with intellectual disabilities placed within the community, with six still waiting for placement. Neighbors said Employment Opportunities placements are for anyone with intellectual disabilities, not just clients of Puzzle Pieces. In fact, Mason is not a Puzzle Pieces client.
Neighbors said a major component of Employment Opportunities’ mission is the OBKY Coalition for Workforce Diversity, which is a networking opportunity for Employment Opportunities and local business owners and human resource representatives. The coalition held their fourth meeting last week where over 40 businesspeople were in attendance.
Educating the Owensboro business sector on hiring someone with intellectual disabilities is a continued goal of Employment Opportunities.
“They are very capable of working, they want to work, they have the desire to do the jobs that a lot of other people do not want to do,” she said.