Walgreens Distribution Center: Enabling a Workforce

July of this year marked the 25th anniversary of the American with Disabilities act, and the Walgreens distribution center in Anderson embodies not just the letter of that law, but the spirit as well. With more than 40% of its workforce having some form of disability—physical or cognitive—the facility is a model of inclusion.

It’s not a charity model, but a workforce development model, and it’s a business model that works. Spearheaded by former VP of supply chain and logistics Randy Lewis, whose son is autistic, Walgreens’ focus on expanding their workforce by hiring disabled workers in significant numbers started in 2003. The Anderson distribution center, which opened in 2007, was designed from the beginning with disabled workers in mind.

Walgreens spokesperson Emily Hartwig stresses that the company has always hired disabled workers, but Lewis’s proposal to focus on expanding that segment of the workforce coincided with a redesign of the company’s distribution centers, and the Anderson facility was the first to be designed specifically with the needs of disabled workers in mind and a goal of those workers making up at least 30% of the workforce.

Once the location was selected and the details worked out with economic development and state officials, Lewis and the Walgreens team partnered with the Anderson County Disabilities and Special Needs Board to tailor processes and equipment to workers who have a variety of special needs and to provide training and support for disabled workers.

Some of the innovative accommodations are physical, such as height-adjustable workstations to allow for a wheelchair, and others allow visually impaired or cognitively disabled workers to follow directions without relying on text. For example, work areas in typical distribution centers may be named for the equipment used or for the function, but at the Anderson center, they are graphically represented with animals, foods, and colors. This benefits everyone, from disabled workers to low-literacy workers to non-native English speakers, and the process is streamlined for everyone regardless of ability.

Training for disabled workers is provided by the Anderson County Disabilities and Special Needs Board (ACDNSB) in an on-site simulation facility. It’s fast-paced work, and once workers are hired, they’re held to the same standards as non-disabled workers—and receive the same pay, too—so the training piece is crucial. ACDNSB helps potential hires with the application process, but the training takes the place of an interview—something that is often difficult for disabled workers.

John King, interim director of ACDNSB, says, “We’ve been employing people for years—fast food, Walmart, janitorial, recycling centers, etc. But … this was recognized as a unique partnership between a disability board and a major corporation. To have a major corporation to step out from the norm and meet the needs of people with disabilities is wonderful. The collaboration, cooperation, and mutual respect was just unreal. They’ve put forth a lot of money and resources to make this a success.”

Giving disabled workers independence, confidence, and marketable skills is certainly a significant benefit to the hiring practices at the Anderson distribution center, but Walgreens has discovered that it makes good business sense, too. The benefits include less turnover, fewer missed days, increased overall efficiency, and higher employee morale.

A second distribution center employing more than 40% disabled workers opened in Windsor, Connecticut after the Anderson facility opened, and even in the locations without that specific focus, Walgreens distribution channels averages a 10% disabled workforce, Hartwig says.

Outside of the distribution facilities, Walgreens has a store-based program known as REDI (Retail Employees with Disabilities Initiative) in 13 states, working with vocational rehab agencies. To date, there are around 500 participants, who receive four to six weeks of on-the-job training, with store management deciding on the best fit for each individual.

Randy Lewis’s book, No Greatness without Goodness: How a Father’s Love Changed a Company and Sparked a Movement, chronicles his personal crusade to make the workforce more inclusive of individuals like his own son, starting with Walgreens.

The company has received accolades from disability advocacy organizations and has received national media attention for the Anderson facility as a model of disability inclusion. You can see the Walgreens Anderson Distribution Center in action here.

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at SharonPurvisWrites.com.