Service with a Smile

— The car wash at the Yellow Cab Company lot in East Village is like most others. Black Lincoln town cars run through, and the crew wipes them off. Only this crew is different. Expressions of boredom and lackluster motions of wiping off cars aren't evident. Instead, the crew of three men and one woman smile. They pay attention to detail as they scrub off the tires and rub out stubborn marks.

In January 2000, the Yellow Cab Company's Premiere Ride division contracted with San Diego's Arc (association of retarded citizens) to use developmentally disabled workers for auto detailing. Everyone has noticed the difference.

Jackie, Marissa, James, and Albert are busy detailing limousines and taxis from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. They enjoy their work and smile when they talk about it.

Jackie: "I've been here since February. I like it. The people are nice to you and they help you out. I like to wash cars and stuff."

Marissa: "I started here in February. I clean the whitewalls, I wax the Premieres, and I love it. This is a good job. We make tips too. It's easy work. They treat us very nice."

James: "I'm new here now. I like it. It's easy for me."

Albert: "I came here on January fifth. It's okay. I start work at 7:30 and get off at 2:00."

Transportation Network general manager Sue Watson was one of the people behind the decision to hire disabled workers. "We'd seen them working at other locations; they're at my car dealership. Our focus has changed here in the past eight months. We want to assist the community and make a difference, so we've got a bunch of programs we got involved in. We started doing stuff with city schools -- internship programs, mentoring, job shadowing with the foster children's society -- and we're working with retired citizens, trying to get them in. We hired a few retired people this week. We thought this was a great opportunity, and it's worked out well.

"We hired them just to work on our Premiere vehicles." (Premiere Ride is a division of Yellow Cab that offers luxury sedan service for executives.) "They were so efficient, they got done in a quick time frame, so now they will wash the taxis as well. The taxi drivers love it, because [they don't] have to do it all themselves. You'll see them all pitching in together to get the job done."

According to Watson, the detailing crew shows an enthusiasm they'd never seen with previous carwashers. "They're on time every day. They're always here. The best part is that they put a smile on everyone's face. They're right here where everyone walks into the corporate office, and everyone is grinning. Everyone is friendly, and we have a good relationship with all of them."

Premiere Ride manager Tom Cartwright was so impressed that he decided to hire workers from Unyeway, an agency similar to Arc, located in Ramona. "It's incredible to me that there's no problem with absenteeism. Unyeway found out about us through the KUSI story with Rod Luck and sent us a letter of interest. So we contracted them to do our janitorial services. They're going to bring a crew of seven out with a job coach starting in June."

Cartwright sees only one drawback to using disabled workers, and he doesn't find it significant. All the workers rely on public transportation to get to work. Most of the crew lives in East San Diego or National City and spend an hour or more each way traveling to and from work. "You are limited on the hours you can operate this type of service because of mass transit."

For Tony Leone, vice president of operations for the Transportation Network, mentally disabled employees have been a solution to an expensive problem. "We tried a couple of different approaches. We went to an outside service -- one of those bubble washes; they weren't doing as good a job. It was inadequate for Tom's standards."

Cartwright: "They didn't pay attention to detail."

Leone: "So then we had some people in-house doing it. The thing is, you tie up individuals constantly, eight hours a day, just doing the detail work, and it was one individual. So if you look at what it would take to detail them to the standards that Arc is providing, how many individuals we would have to put on the payroll...and for some reason, these guys take more pride in the way the vehicles look when they're done. They're coming to the point now where they're running out of work!"

Watson: "You don't get that from your regular employee."

Leone: "Albert was telling me this morning that they ran out of work yesterday, and he wanted to get more work, but he made sure I understood when his lunch break was, so we wouldn't schedule any work during that time period."

Watson: "There are no negatives. It's just all positives."

The detailing crew was assembled by Bob Woodford, the Group Placement Coordinator for Arc. With his office nearby on Market Street, Woodford is frequently onsite, checking the progress of his employees. He says that although the current crew has worked together since February, the goal is better jobs and more independence.

"We want to move them into individual placement to hold jobs on their own and actually be employed by the company [they work for]. At this point, they're Arc employees working under contract to Premiere Ride.

"It's a good job for us, a lot of interaction with the employees here on all different levels -- the mechanics, the office staff, the drivers. The guys like it a lot."

Like most Arc-contracted employees, the crew has an onsite job coach, Lonnie Niswonger. Besides coaching the crew, Niswonger drives up the cars for them to wash. Niswonger's younger brother is mentally disabled, and her experience with him led to her career as a job coach. She seems as enthusiastic as her crew as she downplays the difficulties of training them for their work. "At any site there are always some kinds of difficulties, but we work through them. We try to talk with each consumer [worker] and let them know if there is a problem, how we're going to deal with it, whether it be a disciplinary thing -- 'Let's work a little harder on those tires' -- whatever needs to be done. Invariably, they'll go along with it, work with you, and do an excellent job."

Continues Niswonger: "They're excellent workers. Marissa has turned out to be one of our best detailers. That's why you see her working on the tires. When we wax the Premiere vehicles, she's the one that does it. She has a very good eye for detail.

"It's been a lot of fun, jumping in and out of cars and getting used to driving them," Niswonger adds. "We've got a big limousine over there, but right now it's in the repair shop. Somebody accidentally banged up the back end. We've also got four vans for them to wash, so it's not just these town cars."

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