When you stop
by Walgreens to pick up a prescription or a few toiletry items, you dont
see whats going on beyond the shelves, beyond the brick and mortar.
What you dont see is that the corporation has been busy at work
creating distribution centers that employ impressive numbers of people
with disabilities. Chet Cooper, ABILITY Magazines editor-in-chief,
recently spoke with Walgreens Randy Lewis, the senior vice president
of distribution and logistics, who detailed how his company is tapping
into a new talent pool.
Chet Cooper: Whose idea was it to expand your outreach?
Randy Lewis: My son, Austin, has autism. Hes 19. Hes been
in the school system since he was three. So hes gone to two different
schools a year for the last 16 years, which means 32 different Individual
Education Plans (IEP) that have been developed for him. Every IEP is the
same. You get there. You wait. You go in. You laugh. You cry. You come
out. Theres another set of parents waiting.
Ive been in his classes and Ive seen all these kids with all
kinds of disabilities, whether it be Cerebral Palsy or mental retardation
or autismmostly cognitive disabilitiesand Ive noticed
when these kids get out of school, they have to compete with a group thats
much better prepared than they are. Ive come to the conclusion that
the disabled die a death of a thousand cuts. They probably dont
drive. Transportation is limited. They probably have difficulty with the
application forms. They dont learn the way were used to teaching
or on the timetable we tend to use. They may look different. On and on
So when we started building new distribution centers with a lot of automation,
we thought: Cant we just take a different approach and maybe make
this easier for people to do this job? Then we thought, Well, lets
get rid of the keyboards. What made the job difficult were the keyboards
and words. So we said, Lets go ahead and make our systems
with pictures and lets use touch screens instead of keyboards.
CC: So you already knew some of the technology was available because of
RL: I knew some of the technology because I knew some of the struggles
Austin had, and I happen to know the technology because thats our
business. From building distribution centers with automation, weve
known about touch screens for a long time. Ive learned about the
icons through working with my son. Also in retail, you go into any quick
service chain today, and theyve started using icons. Plus with all
the struggles with different languages, people think in pictures, not
So we got down the road and we said, How many people, lets
say, with autism could we hire? We said we were going to hire 600
people, and we just talked to somebody and said, Well, gee whiz,
nobodys ever done that before. Without job coaches, ongoing
support and peer support, how many typically-abled people would we need
on the line working, side by side, for each person with autism? And the
guess was two. So we said we were going to hire 600. So 2-to-1 means
we can hire 200 people with a cognitive disability, and that was our objective
from day one.
Then we started working towards that end and went to our partners. When
we picked a prospective city for our operations, we went and talked to
the different partner agencies and said, This is our objective.
Were going to hire 200 people with disabilitiesand not just
the easy disabilities, but people who might not have ever worked or who
have had long-term struggles. And they believed in it. We said we
were going to make it happen, and lo and behold, we did.
CC: How did you find that many candidates for work within a geographic
RL: Well, first of all, we knew we were going to hire 600 from day one.
Weve got about 300 now, and about 40 percent of those have a disability.
Weve got autism, retardation, cerebral palsy and lots of physical
disabilities. We started working with agencies such as Vocational Rehab
and the Department of Special Needs in South Carolina. They put in a training
center, found a building and staffed it, and then we put in equipment
on which employees could train. As people started hearing about us, they
just started showing up. We found one woman who had heard about the opportunity
in San Diego, and moved across the country with her daughter. They both
now work in that distribution center. The only reason I know of her is
because we sent a film crew down there to talk to team members, and the
filmmaker happened to come across them in the interview. In some ways
its like that line from Field of Dreams: Build it and they will
CC: Typically, youre going to be hiring workers within a certain
radius so the commute is not too brutal.
RL: We started working on the transportation issue real early. We went
in saying, OK, when were done, we want to have an example
to show other businesses that this is a sustainable model. This is not
charity. So we purposely did not do things that would make the project
seem like charity. For instance, we did not put in our own transportation
system. We said thats what the community is supposed to do, so we
worked with the community and they came up with a busing system to help
our team members get to work.
CC: There are companies, though, that run car pools, where they own their
own vans and transport workers to and from work.
RL: We might do car pooling with our employees, but traditionally we have
not gone out and picked up employees. I dont think we would do car
pooling in this case, unless we could make the right business case for
it. So far, its a bridge we have not crossed.
CC: I think the business case is that people come to work less tired.
RL: If I extended it to that community, Id probably extend it to
CC: Oh, absolutely. Youre 100 percent right. Im just sayingbecause
I know of a company that recently looked into it
They decided to
invest in vans and offer it to all employees. What they also considered
was making some, if not all, of the vans accessible for individuals who
might need a lift, so to speak. They actually came to us and asked, Is
there a place we could get a deal on a fleet of vans? But they were
all over the place. They hadnt done their homework. In terms of
the business model, have you been able to figure out whether there is
a savings via your automated distribution systems compared to the conventional
RL: The building is 20 percent more efficient than any other building
we have. We built it that way without regard to the work force wed
CC: So you have energy efficiency as well?
RL: The greater efficiency actually comes from the level of automation
we have. The deal about using people with disabilities is they can do
that job as well as a person with typical abilities. The side benefit
is that I think its a better environment because everybody treats
each other a lot better. Theres more teamwork. Theres an awareness
of purpose. You cant tell who has a disability and who does not.
Maybe if you spend some time talking to somebody, you would, or maybe
if you watch the way they walk for a while. Everybody is different. But
you really cant tell. Its completely integrated. ..... continued
in ABILITY Magazine
You can read
the complete article and the full magazine, including all of the photos
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from the Ron Livingston issue:
from the Ron Livingston issue:
Livingston Music Within
Hire & Hire
the Scenes Music Within
Humor Therapy Yo God, Down Here
Allen Rucker: Stuck at the Starting Line
DRLC Fighting Cancer Discrimination
A Father's Story Adopting a Boy with Autism
Horse Therapy Gallop Your Way to Good Health
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