While many social service agencies have faltered during the COVID-19 pandemic, at least one local nonprofit took the opportunity to expand amid the unfortunate circumstances of the past year.
The Op Shop, which provides job placement services and employs adults with disabilities, added a new electro static sanitization service to its offerings to aid in the fight against the coronavirus.
“We were looking to keep people working and we were racking our brains thinking what could we do,” said Eric Freeman, Op Shop director. “That’s how we ended up with that. COVID has been a bad thing, but it has also helped keep our people working.”
The Op Shop employs mainly people with disabilities from all around West Virginia, and places them in jobs to get experience in fields such as custodial services to printing to window washing. While the pandemic presented a challenge to every business in finding ways to operate safely, Freeman said the Op Shop did face a drop in work opportunities for its employees, but that has since almost come back in full.
“It has cut back a little bit,” Freeman said. “With the contracts we have, some of them were overloaded, plus we couldn’t get people to apply. So we have kind of made do with the people we have and it has worked out.”
Now, the challenge is finding new people to apply for jobs at the Op Shop. Tammi Morgan, assistant director and CFO of the Op Shop, said it has been difficult to find new employees likely because restrictions have kept people from venturing into new jobs, while some people have left their jobs because of safety concerns.
Because of this decrease in the work force, Freeman said the Op Shop now has a lot of available job opportunities.
“We have about 115,” Freeman said of the Op Shop’s staffing. “We’re actually having a hard time having people come in for interviews.”
According to Freeman, at least 75 percent of adults employed by the Op Shop must have a documented disability, whether it be physical or mental, including certain types of substance use recovery. He said he prefers to keep the staff at 90 percent people who have with a disability, because often opportunities are limited for people with disabilities.
“As long as you have a documented disability, it doesn’t matter if it’s physical or mental,” Freeman said. “I think the people we serve, every one of them is different.”
Julie Sole, executive director of the Disability Action Center, said the Op Shop is a great resource for adults who have an intellectual or physical challenge, and agrees that opportunities can be limited for them. She also praised the organization for being able to add new opportunities for job placements over time, such as the electro static sanitization service, or the now-defunct Workday Café, which operated for about a year in Fairmont.
“I think the Op Shop does a wonderful job in the community,” Sole said. “They have always done wonderful work, but they have been able to shift and pivot to expanding their employment services to people with disabilities, specifically in the janitorial and cleaning capacity.”
The staff of the Op Shop also helps people with disabilities find employment elsewhere, which Freeman said is the ultimate goal of the organization. Often people with disabilities get their first employment experience with the Op Shop, where they get trained to the point where they can fulfill work duties at another job.
“I think it’s very important to that population to get them trained, get them involved in the community and work,” Freeman said. “That helps them, that helps their families... The ultimate goal would be to place them in the work force.”
Freeman said Op Shop employees of the Op Shop not only get work experience, but their work often leads to personal connections they may not make anywhere else. Morgan said the employees can come to be as close as family.
“They feel comfortable here,” Morgan said. “They take pride in their jobs, they get comfortable, they make connections and friends with other employees. It’s kind of like family. It’s a different kind of job.”
The Op Shop fills a role in a handicapped person’s life which may go empty if not for it offering employment opportunities, Sole said. She said the DAC’s collaboration with the Op Shop helps encompass many aspects of life for a person with disabilities.
“There have been many over the years, folks that are employed by the Op Shop that are also members of the DAC,” Sole said. “The Op Shop might be filling the employment role for that client, the DAC is able to step in and still provide those social and recreational opportunities for the families and other support services.”
Freeman said anyone interested in employment with the Op Shop can call its office or drop in the office for information. He said the organization works with people to find a job that fits their skills and their needs, and eventually helps them move on to another job where they can put their training to use.
“Sometimes we have to work them in different areas to find out what they like to do and what they do best,” Freeman said. “Not only do we help them in a job, we help them in every aspect of life.”
For more information about the Op Shop call 304-366-5737.