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A third of workforce laid off at Vocational Opportunities

By Kathy Chaffin
kchaffin@salisburypost.com
Hard economic times have forced Rowan Vocational Opportunities to lay off 17 full-time employees ó 34 percent of its total workforce.
“Some of them had been here as long as six or seven years,” said Executive Director John Williams. “We were kind of caught between that rock and the hard place.”
Williams said the vocational center for the developmentally disabled, located at 2728 Old Concord Road, fared pretty well through December. “But as you know, the recession has gotten deeper and deeper since then,” he said, “and we are now running 20 percent below our budget.”
The shortfall stems from funding sources cutting their appropriations and a 15-to-20 percent drop in contract work.
Williams said the Rowan County United Way, which appropriated $66,000 to the vocational center’s 2008-2009 budget, asked all agencies to cut their 2009-2010 budget request by 15 percent. “And we did that,” he said.
In addition, Williams said Piedmont Behavioral Healthcare, the local mental health entity covering Rowan County, has told him to expect a cut of $100,000 to $150,000 in its $1 million appropriation for 2008-2009.
“I’m sure they are being cut back, too,” he said, “and you know how the cuts come right down the line.”
A reduction in contract work for the developmentally disabled consumers also means less money coming into the center. The 35 to 45 companies served by Rowan Vocational Opportunities have less work for them to do, Williams said, probably because they have less business in the struggling economy.
“We have managed to keep our consumer payroll the same by making cuts elsewhere,” he said. Some examples of cost-saving actions include only running the heat twice a day to keep the facility warm and buying refills for the plastic soap containers in the bathrooms.
“Every consumer here gets a check every two weeks,” he said. “It may be $1. It may be several hundred dollars, depending on their abilities and depending on what section they work in.”
Consumers assigned to the GE contract, for example, make the most money because it requires a higher level of skills.
Williams said the remaining 33 staff members wanted to do everything they could to ensure that the 185 consumers employed by Rowan Vocational Opportunities were not affected by the cuts.
“They are the reason we’re here,” he said. “They’re our No. 1 priority. I guess if anything has hurt them, it will be that some of them are not receiving one-on-one attention.”
Williams said Piedmont Behavioral Healthcare’s new Fading program has resulted in some of the Community Alternatives Program (CAP) consumers losing one-on-one staff. Instead, he said staff members are working with small groups of consumers who require more guidance and supervision.
Another result of the recession is the loss of a Supported Employment program the vocational center offered in collaboration with the N.C. Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Williams said it was costing Rowan Vocational Opportunities more than $100,000 a year to fund the program.
“We just couldn’t afford to provide that service anymore,” he said.
Staff were able to place most of the consumers in the program in jobs out in the community, Williams said. Another three were hired to work at the center, leaving only a couple without work.
“We are not in a position to employ more,” he said. “We hope that in the future, we can go back to providing that service for those who need it here in Rowan County.”
Williams said another concern for the vocational center is transportation costs. Even when the price of gas peaked last summer, he said they didn’t raise the $4 per-day fee ó a small percentage of the total cost ó for consumers. “Hopefully, we can continue to manage without an increase,” he said.
Even in a recession, Williams said Rowan Vocational Opportunities, which also offers life skills training and compensatory education classes to consumers, has continued to receive generous support from the Rowan County community and the Hurley, Robertson and Woodson foundations. Their contributions made possible the addition of a 4,000-square-foot wing last year and two new vans.
Even with the current economic challenges, Williams, who replaced retiring Executive Director Carl Repsher last summer, said he absolutely loves his job.
As the guest speaker at last Tuesday’s meeting of the Salisbury Rotary Club, Williams said he told the members, “If you’re having a bad day, come out here for 15 minutes because it will change your outlook on life. What we consider as a problem or challenge, these guys overcome all the time.”
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249.

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