Washington — Employers are discovering it makes dollars and sense to hire retarded workers. Banks, hotel and food-service chains, and retail stores are just a few of the employers across the nation finding the mentally retarded to be a stable, reliable work force that executes semiskilled and unskilled responsibilities with diligence, enthusiasm, and a care unrivaled by ``normal'' workers.
Packer Plastics in Lawrence, Kan., tried temporary workers from the general work force for packaging and collating work. Executive vice-president David Schwartzburg says they were ``experiencing a lot of errors,'' apparently because of the monotony of the work.
About a year ago Packer contracted 60 retarded workers, and Mr. Schwartzburg ``can't say enough good things about them.'' He adds, ``The job gets done - on time, and with care. The monotony doesn't bother them. I've learned a lot in the last two years. It's a beautiful thing. They're disabled but not unable.''
Now Packer Plastics is in the midst of a $6 million plant expansion, and Schwartzburg says there will be more jobs for retarded workers.
He says he was tipped off to the advantages of hiring these workers by the Quaker Oats Company.
``This is not charity or a cheap labor force,'' says Quaker Oats spokesman Edward Cunningham. ``They bid on jobs, and they have to complete the contract.''
Quaker Oats used temporary employees for light packaging and stenciling for its product-promotion campaigns. Company vice-president Sherry Schaub was plant manager in Lawrence three years ago when it occurred to him to tap the ``sleeping work force'' of retarded people.
``With the proper support, they are extremely valuable and productive. They have a fantastic attitude when given the opportunity to contribute,'' says Mr. Schaub. The retarded workers come to work ``whistling and leave whistling,'' Schaub says. But at first, he recalls, other Quaker employees weren't so happy.
``It was a growing experience for people first exposed to those who weren't quite like they were. But a caring and supportive relationship developed.''
Mr. Cunningham, the Quaker Oats spokesman, adds, ``You can't help but warm up to these people. Now it's such a normal thing, nobody pays attention.''
Marriott Corporation employs a thousand mentally retarded people. Absenteeism, tardiness, and job-hopping are virtually unknown concepts to these workers. Pam Farr, Marriott's director of equal opportunity, says their work and safety records are ``as good or better'' than other employees.
Marriott, like other employers, gets a federal tax credit for employing retarded people. It also gets a ``loyal'' work force. Hiring the retarded, Ms. Farr says emphatically, ``is a business program, not a social program.''
``We want to demythologize what mental retardation means,'' says Vincent Gray, executive director of the local Association for Retarded Citizens, a branch in Washington of the National Association of Retarded Citizens, headquartered in Arlington, Texas.
Mr. Gray is a passionate crusader for the retarded. His voice rises two octaves when decrying the ``unfair'' standard applied to his clients for breaking into the work world. He says society at large wants ``perfect models'' presenting no problems - a standard he says no one else has to subscribe to.
``They don't have any more problems than anybody else first starting a job,'' Gray insists. ``We actually reduce the turnover rate in jobs that people usually move on from.'' He boasts of 75 to 100 placements each year with average work records of seven years. One area employer, Riggs National Bank, is expanding its maintenance and clerical positions to bring on more of Gray's clients.
There have been adjustments for all concerned, some difficulties with ``bathroom and lunchroom'' manners, but ``nothing serious,'' says one executive, who asked not to be named.
Vocational counselors from groups like Gray's are initially sent with the potential employees until they are fully acclimated.
One vocational counselor, J.R. Condra, says that after training in social and work skills, job orientation for the retarded is ``the same as with any new employee.'' Mr. Condra works at Cottonwood Inc., a Lawrence, Kan., training facility that also counsels at Quaker Oats and Packer.
``We train people in speed, accuracy, attitude, and appropriate interaction with co-workers,'' he says.
Condra adds that he has never seen retarded employees being taken advantage of. ``In all instances, we're doing the monitoring and we've had no problem like that whatsoever.''
All employers interviewed by the Monitor said retarded workers have no more problems adapting to the workplace than other employees. But all noted that correct matching with the appropriate job is critical.
When Ricardo Thorton went to work at the Martin Luther King Library in Washington, D.C., many said he wouldn't last out the year. That was nine years ago. Mr. Thorton grew up in Forest Haven, an institution for the mentally retarded in Laurel, Md., and many of his counselors were doubters.
``I proved them wrong,'' he says as he shakes hands like a mayoral candidate. When ``normal'' people stumble over the term ``retarded,'' Thorton gracefully comes to the rescue: ``Some of my friends get mad when they hear the word `retarded.' It's just a word. It means you can't learn as fast as other people.''
One Forest Haven counselor - who ``really worked,'' says Thorton - helped him learn to read. That help, combined with the suggestion that he could make it in the outside world, led to his library job. Thorton, who is married and father of a two-month-old, checks books in and out, issues library cards, and recently began ``working with the computer.''