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— At 8:30 on weekday mornings, several small buses drop off 200 passengers at 9575 Aero Drive. The buses move at a brisk pace even though most of the passengers need some assistance getting off. By 9:00, the passengers are at their work stations, anxious to begin a day of learning and production. The Arc (formerly the Association of Retarded Citizens) of San Diego, a nonprofit corporation, trains and hires retarded citizens of all ability levels -- some with severe learning limitations -- to take care of themselves. In the last four years, more than 60 retarded people have transitioned from the Arc into jobs in the community.

"Everything we do is designed to improve a skill. We believe individuals have the capacity to learn," explains executive director David Schneider, 54. "If we can find the key to unlock their learning potential, then they can build skills, obtain fluency in the skill, then apply that in a variety of situations." The association trains people in skills as basic as eating and grooming and as advanced as working at a public job site.

Schneider points to a group of "clients," as they are called, assembled in a waiting room. "They'll be going out into the community. We have five or six job sites where they go every day. They're paid a wage based on their productivity. It might be rolling silverware [in napkins] for the Red Lobster or doing litter abatement -- things like that.

"Everyone is on our payroll, and everyone that works in our training program is paid based on their own personal productivity -- on a piece rate if the activity has a capacity for piece rate, and if someone is doing mopping, then it's hourly." The association makes sure their workers are paid fairly and are not exploited. Clients work an average of six hours per shift.

"Let's say we get a job in; we need to put three items in a bag and staple it on a card, and it's going to be sold in a retail store. John [director John McKee] will have to go out and survey at least three employers that do a similar job and determine what they're paying people for that. Let's say that that job earns $10 an hour; that becomes the basis on what each client will be paid. Then John has to take three nondisabled people, and they have to do that task. We have a computer-software program that's approved by the department of labor, and from the elements in the task, we can determine how many units a nondisabled person can do.

"For example, if a nondisabled person could do a hundred units in an hour, and the rate is $10 an hour, then you would be paid 10 cents a unit. So the individual [Arc client] gets paid the same rate; they get paid 10 cents a unit. If they do a hundred, they get $10. If they do one, they get 10 cents. The training is designed to allow a person at any skill level to come to work, learn tasks, grow, and then every six months we have to do new time studies on every employee and every job. So there's a constant adjustment. If you're improving your skills, your pay rates go up; if you have a condition in which you're deteriorating and your productivity goes down, then your rate goes down."

The variety of services the association provides is reflected in its appearance. Built in 1991 and located in an industrial park, the building looks like a typical high school, with modern structures grouped around a courtyard. A small store inside sells refreshments and convenience items -- manned by clients. The largest building is a warehouse where products are loaded, unloaded, and stored for shipment. Next to the warehouse, Arc clients do various tasks in a workshop.

Inside the workshop are pallets stacked with canned goods, cardboard cartons, and flattened cardboard. Schneider points out a group of clients seated at the workbench. "They're punched in and getting their work assigned to them. Throughout the day we will do maybe five or six different jobs...as simple as assembling a keyring to taking foreign labels off of cans and relabeling them to assembling multi-piece units that are then blister-packed for a commercial client."

Director John McKee, 53, explains a nearby group's assembly: "They'll sit down and take the pieces that have to go in here; they'll load the unit; it'll then be placed in a tray and then sent to another section; then another group will go in and do the actual blister-pack sealing. Each of those steps has a value, so the individual who is counting out the pieces and putting it into the blister is getting paid X amount of money for each of those blisters. And the same for the individual who's putting it on the machine and actually doing the sealing."

At the edge of the warehouse are loading docks. A high-tech network is employed for distribution with automated, computerized shipping stations and online access to UPS, FedEx, and the other major carriers, which enables Arc to compete at the highest levels of assembly and distribution. Schneider is proud of their work during the last Super Bowl in San Diego. "We assembled all the products and materials [the NFL] gave out. When it came time to set up at the convention center, Arc's staff managed that entire process. [The NFL had] a variety of gifts they gave out to people -- backpacks, pins, hats, etc. That's just one of the things we've done."

With the economy booming near full employment, it follows that more retarded people would find jobs, but Schneider isn't sure San Diego is there yet. "I don't know if we have seen any significant improvement in employers accepting individuals without skills. We have cyclic placements. Before the holidays, there's usually more potential positions available; then after the holidays, there's layoffs. We still have to make sure the employer feels comfortable that we can support the person [we place] and that we'll help train the person. Our staff goes in, they learn the job, then they train the person to do the job, then we stay with the person until they're able to do the job effectively."

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