Walgreens Invests In Ability
South Carolina is poised to become a showcase for the employment of people with disabilities when Walgreens opens its new distribution center in Anderson in early 2007.
The Deerfield, Ill.,-based drugstore chain plans to hire 850 workers by the time the state-of-the-art center is fully operational. Thirty percent, or 255, of those workers, will be people with disabilities, according to Randy Lewis, Walgreens senior vice president of distribution and logistics.
The company is primarily focusing on hiring young people who have cognitive disabilities, such as attention deficit disorder and learning problems, said Rick Poole, a SC Vocational Rehabilitation Department counselor in Anderson who has been working closely on the Walgreens project.
He said a large number of them will come from SCVRD’s school-to-work transition program, which helps students with disabilities move into employment.
Lewis, who has an autistic son, says including people with disabilities in the workforce is a sound business decision.
“The disabled don’t walk through our doors,” he said. “They’re invisible to most employers. A lot of them have given up [trying to get a job] because they don’t have access.
“I believe we need to take advantage of their gifts. My son will have to compete in a world where people have lots of advantages over him. If we can’t do something about that, who can?” he said.
Job candidates with disabilities will come from the SC Vocational Rehabilitation Department, the SC Department of Disabilities and Special Needs, the Veterans’ Administration Rehabilitation Programs and the SC Commission for the Blind.
Anderson was chosen for the 700,000-square-foot center because of its proximity to the markets it will serve and also because of the services available to people with disabilities. The size of 10 football fields, the center will serve 800 stores in eight states throughout the South and Mid-Atlantic area. A 10-story tower in the middle will accommodate merchandise storage and 42 computer-operated cranes will retrieve products from the tower.
Walgreens is investing more than $175 million in the project, which will include equipment specially designed for use by people with disabilities.
“We feel like we’re the luckiest people in the world to have fallen in with VR,” Lewis said. “It was a match made in heaven. They’ve worked with us hand in hand to make our dream a reality.”
In addition to SCVRD, “we’ve also received strong participation from Anderson County and other state and local agencies, which have created a solid business environment,” Lewis said.
Walgreens stores have no storage space. The company uses a computerized distribution system that records each item as it is sold. That information is sent to the distribution center and twice a week, the items are restocked.
“The logical conclusion is that automation will enable a group of people who might not otherwise have an opportunity to work,” Lewis said. “Our experience has been that they’re a very loyal, committed group of people that others like working with.
“Their spirit makes us feel like we’re part of a bigger community,” he said.
Walgreens will train people with disabilities to check in merchandise; unpack and categorize items; and pick orders for a specific store. They also will be encouraged to apply for managerial, supervisory, professional and auxiliary support positions, Poole said.
Lewis said ultimately all Walgreens stores will employ people with disabilities.
A team of representatives from Anderson County schools, local government, the SC Department of Disabilities and Special Needs, the Veterans’ Administration and SCVRD designed assessment and training programs.
Poole said this distribution center will be the model for the next three centers Walgreens develops.
“I believe partnerships like this were what the first President Bush had in mind 16 years ago when he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said SCVRD Commissioner Larry C. Bryant. “It’s taken a lot of education and a lot of changes in attitude for employers to realize the potential of people with disabilities and benefits of hiring them.
“Walgreens is a leader in this effort and we’re proud to be associated with such a progressive company,” Bryant said.
Lewis said that two years ago, “we couldn’t find anybody who thought this project would be a success. Today, everybody believes.”