I’m with production manager Eryka Wright on the shop floor of East Hartford-based Onyx Spirits Co. LLC, which makes handcrafted Prohibition-era moonshine. While some workers carry boxes, Wright and one of her employees are doing the chicken dance. "We do random dance outbreaks to keep the blood flowing and keep the energy high," she said.
Wright supervises employees with developmental disabilities. They're trained by MARC Inc., a state-funded, Manchester-based not-for-profit chapter of ARC, a national advocacy group for people with disabilities such as autism, Down's syndrome, and fragile X. The organization places workers at companies across Connecticut, including Bob’s Discount Furniture, Gerber Scientific, and McDonald’s franchises.
"They bring so much energy every single day," Wright said. "They motivate me to move faster, and to work harder, and to make sure that they have enough work. One of our MARC employees, Michael, does not like emotion, or affection, or anything like that. So pretty much once a day, I find a random Celine Dion song that’s rather moving, and I sing the whole thing to him, really embarrass him quite a bit. And he laughs."
Michael Arel said it’s nice having a boss who sings to him. He’s been with MARC since graduating from high school seven years ago, and has worked at other companies before joining Onyx this past summer. "The people are more nicer here," he said, "and they treat me much better than my other bosses ever did. I don’t think you should work for people that are mean to you."
Arel lives with his parents, and said he’s happy to be able to buy what he wants with his own earnings. His co-worker Allison Cornelius said coming here is the best part of her day. "I love working here," she said. "It’s my best job ever. I hope they would keep me here, like, forever."
Cornelius, Arel, and other MARC workers are dropped off and picked up after work four days a week, along with job coach Jose Cruz. "We dust the bottles," Cruz said. "We rinse the bottles, then we fill the bottles with the moonshine, and then we inspect them. Then one of our people corks it, and then another person lines it up. So each individual thing has its own different price pay. We can do up to about 750 bottles a day."
Onyx opened in 2011 and expects to sell 60,000 bottles by year-end. The company is expanding in Rhode Island, New York, and Massachusetts.
Co-founder Adam von Gootkin said it’s far more cost effective to pay per unit of work than to fully automate the bottling process, which could cost anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000. But the benefits, he pointed out, are not just financial. "For a startup," he said, "it makes it very affordable and attractive for us, because we’re able to operate and get the product out the door for less. They work on helping us achieve our goals. At the same time, we absolutely love the fact that we’re giving them an opportunity to work."
To date, MARC has placed more than 2,000 people at workplaces across the state. Marketing director Kevin Zingler said, "We always hope that companies will think of people with disabilities to get hired, and be on their payroll, or to be a part of their teams. We found that there’s just a great partnership that develops within the community, and enables people to grow both professionally and personally, both from the company side, and from their employee side."
Seeing people, not disabilities, is MARC’s philosophy. Onyx said the employees bring energy and a joyful spirit to the company. Although everyday tasks are not always easy for these workers, as Olympic figure skater Scott Hamilton said, "The only disability in life is a bad attitude."