Mercy concentrates energy behind efforts to employ people with disabilities

February 1, 2019

At Mercy's first reverse job fair, prospective employers come to the job seekers


Sara Dierker, 28, says she likes "to keep moving and keep myself busy." And her job as a food service tech and lead trainer in the nutrition services department at Mercy Hospital St. Louis keeps her on the go.

"I go in sometimes at 5 in the morning to do tray setup and then, at 6, I begin to run the trays," delivering breakfast for patients throughout the hospital, Dierker said. She also trains all new co-workers in her department and plays on the nutrition services softball team.

Mercy Hospital Employee
Sara Dierker at work in the nutrition services department at Mercy Hospital St. Louis.

The fact that Dierker has a learning disability and is hard of hearing is not a factor in the job she has performed for the past four years. She represents the Mercy system's concerted efforts to bring more people with disabilities into its workforce, efforts that are reaping benefits for those workers, other employees, patients and its communities at large.

Like employees everywhere, Dierker says the best things about her job are the paid time off, the benefits and the social interaction with co-workers and patients.

"Sara is very outgoing; she can make friends with anyone," said Paul Lenhart, disability inclusion supervisor at the hospital. "She has a great sense of when a patient might want a quiet 'Hello. I have your food' and leave it at that and when they might want a 'HELLO. How are you today? I have your food for you.'"

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in August 2018 that its 2016 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System showed one in four U.S. adults — 61 million Americans — have a disability that impacts major life activities. The results covered six disability types — mobility, cognition, hearing, vision, independent living (such as difficulty doing errands alone) and self-care (difficulty dressing or bathing).

That statistic demonstrates that nearly every American family is impacted in some way by a disability, said Dana Brodeur, manager of disability inclusion services at Mercy.


In 2016, the St. Louis-based health system pledged to hire 60 new employees with disabilities and offer disability inclusion training to 26,000 employees at seven hospitals in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Those seven hospitals piloted a program for the entire system, made up of 40 hospitals and some 44,000 employees in those three states and Kansas.

When the statistics were compiled, leaders found that in the nine months ending on March 31, 2016, there had already been 119 new employees with disabilities brought on board at those seven hospitals. Another 176 were hired from April through December 2016, 201 employees with disabilities were hired from January through September of 2017, and an additional 243 joined Mercy in the period from Oct. 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018.

More than 1,600 employees in the seven hospitals have received training in unconscious bias specifically about working with co-workers with disabilities. The system is reaching every employee through workshops or videos and other resources on the health system's intranet.

And Mercy's efforts to encourage workforce diversity and opportunities for the disabled reach into the community.

Job seeker
Laura Soucy was one of more than 30 job seekers with disabilities who promoted their capabilities to potential employers at a reverse job fair in March. The event was sponsored by Mercy and held at Mercy Virtual Care Center in Chesterfield, Mo.

In March, Mercy Hospital St. Louis hosted its first "reverse job fair." Thirty-two companies and more than 40 job seekers participated in the event, which was held at the Mercy Virtual Care Center in Chesterfield, Mo., a St. Louis suburb. Job seekers who have disabilities set up booths and poster-board presentations highlighting their skills to start the conversation with potential employers. Reverse job fairs are becoming something of a trend in the U.S., many are sponsored by organizations serving the disabled. "There were people with GEDs and Ph.D.'s and everything in between," Brodeur said of the job candidates at the Mercy event. At least five received job offers, she said, although the number could be higher since participants were not required to report outcomes back to Mercy.

Such events don't succeed without ample groundwork, and Mercy staff members spent many months working with local disability advocacy groups and community agencies to help job seekers get ready for the job fair. The job seekers prepared displays highlighting their skills and talents, polished up resumes and practiced interviewing techniques to build their confidence before the big day.

After the job fair, Mercy incorporated what it had learned into a half-day "MPowerU employment advocacy workshop" that offered information on resume writing, when to disclose the disability, the application process, interviewing and what to expect after accepting a new employment opportunity.

The first MPowerU workshop took place in September at Mercy Hospital South in St. Louis County. Six more such workshops are planned for this year in other hospitals that are part of the pilot program.

The health system also trains job coaches to support new employees with significant disabilities. "Their main role is helping them learn the job and maintain employment, making sure the employee understands expectations," Brodeur said.


Lathon C. Ferguson, who joined the health system in May as director of diversity and inclusion, said he has seen "how because of the purposeful work that Dana has done that the organization is making a difference ... in terms of changing the culture and environment internally and making sure we are inclusive of all individuals."

Brodeur believes there are unseen benefits to patients who see employees with disabilities going about their daily tasks.

"I've been told by two different mothers" whose children were born years ago with developmental disabilities "that they would have given anything to see people with disabilities working at the hospital when they delivered their babies," she said.

Brodeur said the variety of jobs held by three Mercy Hospital St. Louis co-workers who are all deaf shows that an applicant's disability does not dictate or pigeonhole their capabilities. She said the three employees have "totally different jobs" — one in the operating room, one in health information services and the other in the sports medicine department.

Aided by a grant from the New Jersey-based Kessler Foundation and private donations, Mercy plans to share its experiences with other hospitals in the system and eventually with other health care systems. A team from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University is developing best practices based on the Mercy inclusion model.

Copyright © 2019 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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