1954: Program for the Employment of the Physically Handicapped. This program summarized opinions about employing people with disabilities, reported on other companies' experiences, and outlined a strategy of guidance for an employment program for people with disabilities. The result was an aggressive campaign to integrate people with disabilities into Sears' work force. In 1954 Sears employed 981 people with disabilities, representing 0.7 percent of its total employees. Of that number, 16.9 percent (166 associates) were veterans. Types of positions ranged from department and division managers to sales, service, shipping and receiving, clerical, and store staff. (For more recent statistics,seeComparison of 1994 Sears Work Force Data and National Statistics.)
1968: Sears established an equal opportunity division within its national Personnel Department.
1972 to present: Selective Placement Program. A cornerstone of Sears' proactive approach to the employment and advancement of people with disabilities, this program matches the talents and skills of people with disabilities with the requirements of jobs within Sears. The program encourages people with disabilities to apply for any Sears job for which they believe they qualify and to identify themselves voluntarily for coverage under the program. (For more information on this program, see theSpecial Featurein this report.)
1972 to present: The ABLE Program. This program was designed to remove architectural barriers facing employees and customers with disabilities at all Sears facilities.
1989 to present: Program Able Days. Program Able is a computer training program for people with disabilities, which was established in 1986 by El Valor Corporation and the Illinois Department of Rehabilitation Services. Each year, Sears invites students from Program Able to spend a day at the Sears' Systems Department meeting systems managers, human resources managers, and former Program Able students who are working for Sears. Following their day at Sears, some students are tested and hired as interns or trainees.
1989 to present: Merchandise Group Headquarters Design. Sears Merchandise Group moved into new headquarters in 1991 in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. The 2-million-square-foot facility is located on a 200-acre site. Core elements of the campus are four- to six-story office buildings connected to a conference training center and food service area.
During the design process, the company assessed the needs of associates and visitors with disabilities. Although construction of the complex began before the ADA's passage, Sears was committed to creating a barrier-free environment and consulted with many disability groups and organizations.
Many universal design features of the new facility exceed ADA requirements and benefit all employees and visitors, not only those with disabilities. Areas considered included site design; parking; signage; sports facilities; curbs, ramps, and stairs; hospitality suites; restrooms, toilets, and showers; and routes into the buildings. Specific ADA accommodations included amplified telephones at public phone kiosks, teletype-equipped telephones, audible and visual fire alarms, and floors with textured surfaces to indicate that stairs are ahead.
In 1992, Sears commissioned the Peer Review for Architectural Accessibility. The study, conducted by a consulting firm specializing in accessible architecture, concluded that: "As a result of the proactive approach of Sears to accessibility, the final project [is] sensitive to the needs of visitors and employees with disabilities and serves as a model of barrier-free design."
The council implemented a variety of changes including the following:
1991 to present: Accessibility Requirements and Planning for Employees and Customers. Sears has taken an aggressive role in making its facilities accessible and communicating its ADA compliance to all affected constituencies. Sears understands that its commitment to accessibility makes good business sense: well before the ADA, the company's stores accommodated the general population with disabilities, a potential customer group numbering more than 40 million. For example, Sears provided accessible elevators and parking before these accommodations were required by law, and its long- established Home Health Care Catalog, featuring products for health maintenance and rehabilitation, demonstrates how Sears' do-the-right-thing philosophy translates into profitable business. The specialty catalog has been printed annually for 28 years and is circulated to 1.2 million households; it is also available in Sears stores.
To ensure compliance with ADA Title III provisions on public accommodations, in 1991 Sears sent an extensive 80-question survey about existing accommodations for people with disabilities to each store. The Corporate Council on Disability Issues reviewed the responses and produced an ADA compliance booklet, including an action plan that each store manager completes. The booklet included guidance for store employees when serving customers with disabilities, for example:
Project Access disseminates information on the experiences of companies that have employed large numbers of employees with disabilities to help lower the learning curve for other companies, share information on actual experiences, and identify useful resources. Project Access initiated the country's first computer information center for businesses designed to serve as an ADA compliance resource. Other programs have included a pilot effort with the Department of Labor to catalog organizations that locate and train employees with disabilities.
1991 to present: Early Return-to-Work Program. Sears Loss Prevention Department implemented this program as an extension of the company's safety initiative. It provides modified or temporary duty to shorten the length of absence resulting from work-related injury. The goal is to convert what might become a permanent disability into a temporary disability.
An injured employee who misses more than 20 days of work automatically becomes a member of a sponsor team that includes a co- worker, supervisor, unit manager, and insurance claims manager. The co-worker keeps the injured worker informed and lets Sears know how the injured worker is recovering. The program helps speed the employee's return to work and keeps the injured employee involved.
1993 to present: National Management Training Program. Sears recruits 100 to 150 new associates annually into its National Management Training Program. Workforce Diversity Manager Hawkins says, "The people recruited into this program are Sears' future leaders. They exhibit characteristics that enable them to excel in our corporation. One of our Workforce Diversity Initiatives is to recruit people with disabilities into the program."
Through mid-1994, Sears had provided more than 400 recruiters with special training for properly assessing and managing interview situations in which an applicant self-identifies a disability or requirements for accommodations.
"We are prepared from the standpoint of trained recruiters," says Lorna Lanford, a manager in Sears college recruiting program. "We recruit actively on 95 college campuses for the National Management Training Program. We expect to interview qualified candidates with disabilities on every campus we visit."
During spring 1994, Sears participated in a disabilities job fair in Chicago, sponsored by the Illinois Department of Rehabilitation Services. Sears recruiters visited more than 50 job fair attendees and initiated formal interviewing processes with 3 applicants whose disabilities included lower body paralysis, speech and hearing impairments, and albinism.
1993 to present: Education and Communication Programs. Sears communicates its efforts to all employees through newsletters (Prairie Lines at the headquarters office and Front Lines for store and other field employees), e-mail, policy statements, teleconferencing, and training materials.
Sears produced and made available to all employees a 40-minute training video that included ADA issues, the hiring of associates with disabilities, and general training about diversity in the workplace. The objectives of the training video were to help managers be more sensitive to employment issues related to people with disabilities, recognize situations requiring accommodations, and deal with instances of noncompliance or nonaccommodation. The company currently uses accessible CD-ROM multimedia computer technology in some of its disability training programs. 3
1994 to present: Workforce Diversity Initiative. Sears conducted a company-wide Workforce Diversity Initiative during 1994 using focus groups and employee surveys to help define management issues; employee perceptions; and ongoing objectives, strategies, and tactics to help Sears "remain effective in managing diversity," says Workforce Diversity Manager Hawkins. "The initiative will ultimately lead to the development of a blueprint for high-performance management in all facets of work force diversity. We will use this process to understand needs and perceptions across diversity issues," Hawkins explains. "The initiative enables us to focus on issues that arise concerning the ability of people to work together."
Participants in the study were selected from Sears' master database of employees according to such characteristics as race, gender, age, disability, ethnicity, region, and job. The Diversity Initiative focused on the company's accommodation processes for diverse groups of employees in the home office and the field, including credit operations, product services, and retail stores. Six staff members from Workforce Diversity coordinated the study, which examined a representative sample of Sears' entire work force, including associates with disabilities.
Specific questions that the focus groups addressed concerning disability issues included:
"We began this initiative with open minds," Hawkins says, "but we had several intuitive conclusions that we expected to demonstrate. For example, we believed our associates accept the importance of diversity as a core value of our corporate culture. The initiative supported that conclusion."
Ongoing: Sharing Communication Strategies. Sears receives many requests for guidance and information from other companies. In fulfilling these requests, Sears emphasizes that ADA compliance is an investment in the future of the company and points out that accommodating employees and customers with disabilities is consistent with its do-the-right-thing philosophy of good business practices. Both domestic and international groups have visited Sears Merchandise Group headquarters to discuss accommodations for people with disabilities and to tour the site. One international group was from Asia--part of an East Asian exchange program--with special interest in employing and accommodating people with disabilities.
Sears also recently conducted a workshop and tour for business leaders from the Institute of Industrial Engineers. Discussion centered on methods of compliance with the ADA, and participants visited the work stations of several employees with disabilities. The Workforce Diversity Department has designated one staff member to be a resource and representative to the industry on disability issues.
Sears also continues its active participation on the Employers Committee of the President's Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities. For example, Sears participated in writing Ready,Willing and Available, a guide for integrating people with disabilities into the workplace for small and medium-sized employers. Sears also helped start the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a toll- free phone service of the President's Committee that helps employers find ways to accommodate employees with disabilities. (More information on JAN is available in this report.)
Ongoing: Supported Employment Initiatives. Supported employment programs sponsored by nonprofit organizations are helping people with disabilities participate in meaningful employment. This is another area in which Sears' participation demonstrates ADA transcendence. For example, a Sears store in Escondido, California, has begun a pilot job-sharing program in collaboration with the United Cerebral Palsy Association (UCP) of San Diego County to employ people with cerebral palsy. The store is employing four individuals with cerebral palsy to maintain stockroom inventories in the expectation that they will cumulatively perform the same amount of work as one employee without a disability. The UCP provides transportation to and from work for the employees and furnishes a full-time trainer/manager at no cost to Sears. The only cost to Sears is an hourly wage rate of $5.29 to the UCP, which covers payroll administration for the employees. If successful in the Escondido store, this model program may be extended to other Sears stores, according to Harry Geller, Sears Workforce Diversity Regional Manager.
Sears also participates in the Iowa Creative Employment Options initiative and the Wisconsin Employment Resources program. Through the Iowa program a Sears store in Des Moines employs three persons with mental disabilities in jobs similar to those described above in the UCP job-sharing program.