From Crisis to New Opportunities

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Coping with COVID-19 in the World of Work, for Employees with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

By Sharon Ehrnwald

The global COVID-19 crisis caused more than a million Israeli employees to lose their jobs or be furloughed. Somewhat ironically, COVID-19 with its consequences was an “equal opportunity” disease for all employees in Israel, including ones with disabilities, who were in the front line of losing their jobs or being furloughed. While the state of Israel established emergency regulations supporting many Israeli employees with unemployment benefits, many employees with disabilities faced challenges in guaranteeing their disability related rights, such as disability pension, under the new regulations. This required a joint discussion and action forum of the employees and Government representatives along with those NGO’s supporting employees with disabilities working in the competitive job market.

Founded in 1984, Israel Elwyn (IE) is the largest nonprofit provider of programs for individuals with disabilities in Israel, serving over 5,100 children and adults each year throughout the country. IE programs span the life spectrum from infants to senior citizens, offering early intervention, youth transition to adulthood, job training, supported employment, supported living, and retiree services, as well as providing self-advocacy groups and training, and professional development

Israel Elwyn’s Job Placement Services provide on-the-job support for 1,100 individuals with disabilities nationwide in the competitive job market, and assist in finding them meaningful employment while removing barriers to inclusion in the workforce.

During the COVID-19 crisis, IE’s staff conducted a survey process and found that, since the Israeli economy gradually began functioning again in the beginning of June, many of these employees with Intellectual and Developmental Disability (IDD) from IE’s Job Placement Program had been furloughed or let go, and this required adapting the program to support and prepare employers and employees with IDD who were furloughed, fired or in a training process, to a new world of work coping with COVID-19.

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When the COVID-19 crisis began and impacted Israel’s economy, IE staff immediately sent personal questionnaires to these supported employees, to map their need for distance learning or work, and to identify key issues and challenges with which they were dealing during that period. The employees’ initial and ongoing feedback, which was transmitted via online one-on-one and/or group discussions, enabled IE staff to adapt the program’s content and methods to changing needs.

IE professionals immediately turned the COVID-19 crisis into new opportunities using a “Crisis Management” model, as part of its commitment to prevent the referral of hundreds of employees with IDD to sheltered workshops. IE made use of its unique and professional specialists in marketing, public relations, IT, and therapies (Occupational, Physical, etc.), while learning about the changes in the various workplace environments.

Our relationship with employers is more significant now than ever before. As an example of this, Rami Sar-Shalom, CEO of the Peamit Company, who for over 18 years employed workers with a disability in his chain of stores shares:

“The relationship with Israel Elwyn is a longstanding relationship of partnership and support for our most special employees, in as part of their full inclusion in the community. This kind of Inclusion leads to doing good together. Good for the employees and good for Peamit and its staff members, which adds a heart and soul to our daily activities.

With return to our stores and facilities following the Corona crisis, one of our first and most important decisions was how to bring the group of workers in Peamit’s packaging department back to work and to routine after a period of mandatory vacation and how to bring them back to a work and activity routine while maintaining all the [social distancing] rules.

We are happy about it, because coming back without our heart and soul just doesn’t do it…”

During the past three months, staff of IE’s Academy for Continuing Education worked intensively with representatives of the various programs in order to establish a system of online instruction with varying content, for the benefit of service recipients and staff members.

Great efforts have been invested in transforming materials from the supported employment workshops from being face-to-face to virtual. The materials are available in Arabic and Hebrew (some are accessible in sign language), on topics such as: tools and skills for coping with stressful situations and uncertainty, looking for work in this new era, processing difficult situations at work during the coronavirus crisis and more.

A number of informative ZOOM meetings were held with parents of service recipients who participate in the Supported Employment Program as well as the “Creating a Future” and “Mosaic – National Service for Everyone” transitional programs for youth. This was an excellent opportunity for parents to better understand the program’s contents, to meet staff members, and ask questions. Once again, we see that some of the technological approaches that have developed from the COVID-19 crisis will surely continue to be used extensively when things truly get back to normal.

Sharon Ehrnwald is Director, Overseas Relations at Israel Elwyn.

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