WINCHESTER — July has been a particularly good month in terms of job placements for Samantha Greenfield.

Greenfield, a Job Placement Counselor for the Virginia Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS), said by the end of the month she will have 13 job placements for July. Typically, she noted, she may have about three or four placements a month.

“It’s an on fire job market right now, said Greenfield, who started with the Virginia Employment Commission in 2008 before transitioning to Virginia Career Works around 2012. She’s been with DARS for about six years. “When we have individuals who are determined, job ready and they’re truly motivated, they’re getting a job within a week right now.”

Greenfield works with job seekers with disabilities, and finding proper placement for them can sometimes be difficult. That doesn't mean Greenfield doesn't have many qualified or eager-to-work folks lined up ready to find a job.

“Employers have a tendency, I think, to shy away from agencies like ours. Employers think it’s a cumbersome, bulky process,” she said. “It might be a perception that we’re representing unskilled job seekers. But the fact of the matter is is that when you’ve got an unemployment rate like ours, you’ve got to be willing to consider the less-than-perfect candidate because that’s what’s out there looking.”

The aftershock of the initial blast of COVID-19 left the job market in less than ideal shape. Workers have begun to possibly rethink career choices or have not deemed it safe to return to work while employers are struggling to fill shifts.

This, however, could be leading to a shift in the stigmas that surround hiring workers with disabilities, Greenfield said.

DARS is a state agency that assists individuals with unique abilities reach employment goals as well as assisting employers with their hiring needs. Its mission is to improve the employment, quality of life, security and independence of older citizens, Virginians with disabilities and their families.

Greenfield said defining a disability is a “pretty wide range.” It can include general learning disabilities up to someone who has serious medical issues such as a stroke, cancer or cerebral palsy. The agency’s definition also includes those with mental health illness and substance abuse issues.

DARS is an eligibility-based program, meaning you must have documentation for your disability, Greenfield noted.

Staff determines job seekers’ vocational strengths and what their aptitudes are. Then they help with job placement.

DARS also works with employers, educating them on and promoting certain incentives for hiring a DARS job seeker.

Hiring incentives for employers most notably includes the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, a Federal tax credit available to employers for hiring individuals from certain targeted groups who have consistently faced significant barriers to employment.

Targeted groups include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients, qualified veterans, ex-felons, designated community residents, vocational rehabilitation referrals, summer youth employees, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients, long-term family assistance recipients and qualified long-term unemployment recipients.

DARS also promotes their on-the-job training program, where the agency will pay half the employee’s salary for an agreed upon time frame. This is for employers who hire someone who hasn’t done the job before, to help get that employee up to speed.

Disability awareness training is also offered to employers.

DARS staff also implements their preparing for employment program for high school students in Winchester, Frederick, Clarke, Shenandoah and Warren counties.

“Part of that is having employers open their doors to us so we can take students in and do tours and do some job exploration,” Greenfield said. “That also helps employers build a future pipeline of individuals.”

Greenfield said employers have done a better job with hiring DARS job seekers, though she said many employers still have some unrealistic expectations in terms of hiring. She said a company may list 12 bullet points for the perfect employee, but won’t hire someone who has eight of those qualities.

“Say we’ve got an individual who has maybe had a stroke who can’t go back to being an auto mechanic or an HVAC technician. We’re going to help them find something that’s going to be more appropriate,” Greenfield said. “And we have specialists who can provide accommodations and meet with employers and talk with employers about how this person might be good for a certain type of work with a physical accommodation or some type of technology. Not the perfect applicant in the employers’ mind, but there are a lot of resources available to make it a successful placement.”

Once the labor force starts returning to normal, Greenfield said she hopes employers will have seen the benefits of hiring DARS job seekers now.

“I would like to think that a successful placement will give an employer a positive experience and they're going to want to reach back out,” Greenfield said.

— Contact Matt Welch at mwelch@winchesterstar.com