These ‘loyal’ workers get the job done, but without a decent minimum wage their support system is in trouble

PUBLISHED: September 6, 2019

They’re the Valley’s most loyal workforce, these dedicated men and women from New Horizons with special needs who work at Von’s, Albertson’s and Jon’s supermarkets in the north Valley.

You’ve seen them bagging groceries and bringing in carts from the parking lot. If not there, somewhere. They always seem to have a smile on their face, looking grateful for the opportunity.

It’s the stores that are grateful to have them. The turnover rate for a person walking in off the street and getting a job at one of the supermarkets is around 40%. For New Horizon’s workers, it’s less than 10%.

When they get a job, they stick with it. They are trained at a mock supermarket on the New Horizons campus by staff members who are finding it harder and harder to stick with theirs.

They are leaving the field or working multiple jobs due to extremely low wages, says John Brauer, president and CEO of the North Hills non-profit that’s been a champion for adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD) in the Valley for 65 years.

“Industrywide, staff turnover has a significant negative affect on our ability to provide quality care and adequate supports,” he says. “While we fully endorse the increase in minimum wage, these state and local mandates often are not funded.

“Frankly, the system is in crisis and is falling apart, directly impacting people with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD) and their families.”

This year, New Horizons minimum wage costs went up $700,000, but there was no payment made to them by the state to match that increase, he says. This comes at a time when more than 15,000 new individuals with IDD are expected to require services and support from state-funded programs this year.

And, even more challenges lie ahead as the federal government has set a 2022 deadline for non-profit agencies serving the IDD community to get more of their clients off campus during the day, and into jobs or volunteer work out in the community.

It’s a noble idea that’s going to require even more staff support at a time when they’re leaving the industry because of low wages. With less staff and no additional funding coming from the state, Brauer can only do so much private fundraising before people start looking the other way when they see him approaching.

When it comes to helping the most vulnerable among us, which the state is obligated by law to do, it still has a major blind spot for reality.

In 1997, I wrote a series of columns on the state’s Office of Buildings and Grounds laying off a janitorial crew of IDD workers cleaning the Van Nuys state building.

They said the crew from Work Training Programs, Inc. in Chatsworth wasn’t doing a good enough job, but that was bunk. All the state workers I talked to in the building who used the facilities every day said they were doing a great job.

The truth was a lower bid came in for the work and the state awarded the contract to them. It was a ridiculously low bid made just to get the job, and sure enough, the company chosen didn’t have its contract renewed the following year because it was doing such a lousy job.

Meanwhile, members of the IDD janitorial crew were back living at home with elderly parents and care givers, collecting state aid instead of paychecks. This was at the same time then Gov. Pete Wilson was saying he was committed to getting people off welfare and back to work.

Under his watch the state did the opposite for this crew. They went from work to welfare. And now, we’re looking at another version of the “go with the lowest bid” philosophy.

Ask more from New Horizons, but don’t give them more funding so they can pay their own support staff a decent living wage to support their families.

Tie John Brauer’s hands. Make him and his top aides spend way too much time going hat in hand to keep the doors open, and the most loyal workforce in the Valley trained and on the job.

It’s going to be a “challenging” next few years, he says, and he can use all the help he can get.

Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at