CA firm hires disadvantaged workers: retention rate 63% higher

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Wed, 27 May 1998 19:41:08 -0700 (PDT)


http://search.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WAPO/19980525/V000359-052598-idx.html

  CALIF. FIRM HIRES DOWN-AND-OUT

  By Michael White - AP Business Writer - May 25, 1998

CARSON, Calif. (AP) -- Two years ago April Herrera was living the nightmare
life of a heroin addict, homeless and using her welfare check to help
support a 15-year habit.

Nowadays, she's a model employee at a fast-growing computer products
company, recently promoted and optimistic about her future.

Herrera, 38, is among dozens of workers who benefited from a policy at Omni
Computer Products that focuses on hiring the down-and-out. About one-third
of the company's 250 employees have been recruited through parole offices,
halfway houses, homeless shelters and Alcoholics Anonymous.

After they join the payroll, Omni supports them with training programs,
motivational seminars and, in some cases, short-term loans.

In return, such workers have helped Omni, which recycles and markets ink
cartridges for computer printers, reach $25.5 million in sales during 1997.

``I used to think, 'When can I wake up and say it's a beautiful day without
sticking a needle in my arm?' Now I can,'' Ms. Herrera said during a recent
interview. ``I had enough people here who really cared about me, to really
give me that kick in the butt.''

The architect of the policy is Omni president and chief executive Gerald
Chamales, who fought his own battle with drug and alcohol addiction before
founding the company in 1980. He started the hiring policy 12 years ago.

``I guess you could say we recycle human beings,'' said Chamales.

Most of Omni's workforce is in its telemarketing department. In that
high-pressure environment, workers with a troubled past often outperform
their counterparts. Among those who stay on the job for more than six
months, the retention rate for disadvantaged workers is 26 percent,
compared to a 16 percent rate for others, Chamales said.

Omni recruiters look for indications that prospective workers are committed
to bettering their lives. They discuss the applicant's goals and, if there
is an addiction problem, their willingness to enroll or continue in
rehabilitation.

Ms. Herrera was still on heroin when the company hired her last summer. On
the day she finished her two-week training and probation period, her boss
fired her, saying she didn't really seem interested in the job. Desperate
to stay on, Ms. Herrera pledged to stop drugs.

After staying sober for nine months, she was promoted to handle government
accounts in the telephone sales department.

One row over, Bob Surrells' hands shake slightly as he talks about his
descent into alcoholism after a 30-year career as a Navy bomb disposal
expert. After retiring from the service, he launched a skydiving business
in Las Vegas, but lost it when he couldn't control his drinking.

``I was drinking in the military. When I retired, it just got out of
hand,'' said Surrells, 50.

He was hired through a contact at his Alcoholics Anonymous group. ``It's a
godsend,'' he said.

Omni's approach probably wouldn't appeal to, or succeed in, most of
corporate America, said David Rattray, the interim executive director of
Los Angeles Business Advisors, a nonprofit group that encourages
corporations to develop welfare-to-work programs. Many would balk at the
notion of hiring high-risk workers.

``(Chamales) is just a unique guy and that's a unique company. You would
have to go out and clone him,'' said Rattray.

But Chamales argues others could emulate his policy with enough commitment
and patience.

Training classes must start with the basics: how to dress, how to speak to
a client or colleague, how to shake hands and look someone in the eye.

And costs can be high: Omni has $250,000 out in loans to workers who lost
credit or built up debt while unemployed.

Nevertheless, the policy has made his company stronger, Chamales says.

``Initially we thought it was the right thing for us to do,'' he said.
``Then we decided it was the smart thing.

``When you get the right people they will give you 300 percent because
they're so desperate to rebuild their lives,'' he said. ``They're really
hardworking people. They're street smart. If their energies are channeled
properly, they can be some of the best employees.''

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