A job worth keeping; A switch to single-sort could mean a loss of jobs for some

Trenton Laqua pulls paper products out of a recycling truck at the recycling center. Laqua is one of several Cedar Valley Services Inc. clients whose jobs may be threatened if the county moves to single-sort recycling.

Trenton Laqua pulls paper products out of a recycling truck at the recycling center. Laqua is one of several Cedar Valley Services Inc. clients whose jobs may be threatened if the county moves to single-sort recycling.

At the Mower County Recycling Center earlier this month, several Cedar Valley Services Inc. clients worked on recycling lines as a radio played over the hum of conveyer belts moving plastics, papers, glass and cans for further sorting.

Cedar Valley client Trenton Laqua recently raked newspapers and magazines onto a conveyor belt to be separated.

“I really like doing this job out here, and people are good out here,” he said.

With machines to crush glass and grind plastic, Cedar Valley’s Executive Director Rich Pavek pointed out workers need to learn about workplace safety and responsibility.

Tim Bush sorts through plastic as it is unloaded at the recycling center. Bush is one of several Cedar Valley clients whose jobs are being threatened if the county moves to single-sort recycling. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Tim Bush sorts through plastic as it is unloaded at the recycling center. Bush is one of several Cedar Valley clients whose jobs are being threatened if the county moves to single-sort recycling. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

It’s a normal work environment, which is important to Cedar Valley leaders.

“It’s not a made up job here,” Pavek said. “We’re actually doing something that’s good for the whole community and I think they realize that.”

The Mower County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to decide around 9:45 a.m. Tuesday during its regular meeting whether to switch from the current county-operated sorted recycling program to a single-sort program, which would be run by Waste Management Inc., the lone qualified bidder.

The possible change sparked community discussions about both recycling systems. Many prefer the sorted system, which costs $16-$18 a year per property. But others hail single-sort, despite its potential to cost $55.36 a year per residence, because the method is said to increase recycling intake by 30 percent or more and is now used by several neighboring counties.

But preferences on recycling systems only tell half the story in Mower County.

If the county switches to single-sort, 14-17 Cedar Valley clients would lose their jobs when Cedar Valley’s contract to help staff the recycling center expires on March 31, 2016.

While Pavek said Cedar Valley would work hard to secure new jobs, replacing them won’t necessarily be easy.

 ‘Real work’

Cedar Valley provides vocational services and helps find jobs for people with physical or mental disabilities. As Cedar Valley faces uncertainty in its recycling contract, it’s also continuing to adapt its focus to meet the goals set forth by the Olmstead Plan, which strives for integration and inclusion for people with disabilities.

Pavek said the contract with the county has been an important one, because it’s integrated and has clients working side-by-side with community members and interacting with the community on a daily basis.

“It’s truly real work and it’s integrated and you can also see what they’re doing: a really purposeful thing,” Pavek said.

ah.03.23.aCedar Valley’s involvement with Mower County’s recycling program dates to about 1989 when the county was looking for staff and manpower for its recycling center. The county reached out to Cedar Valley Services, which sent a few clients out to help.

The county has continued to contract with Cedar Valley at the recycling center, 1111 Eighth Ave. NE, ever since. Cedar Valley clients fill a variety of jobs alongside county employees and a few Cedar Valley supervisors.

Some Cedar Valley clients work on the trucks to pick up curbside recycling, riding along with drivers for residential and business pickup.

Recyclables are picked up and sorted into three bins: plastics Nos. 1 and 2, glass and cans, and paper. However, other Cedar Valley workers further process products at the center. They separate cardboard and newspaper from glossy paper, green glass from clear glass, aluminum cans from the steel cans, different types of plastic, and so on.

“There’s more separation; that’s where we come into it,” Pavek said of Cedar Valley’s clients. “We further process and make it ready for market here.”

The clients working at the recycling center are Cedar Valley employees, but Cedar Valley bills the county. The curbside contract is about $120,000 a year and the processing account is about $190,000 — about 9 percent of Cedar Valley Service’s business revenue in Austin, according to Pavek.

 The Olmstead Plan

Cedar Valley Services formed in 1960 and for many subsequent years, most clients worked in a sheltered environment, often at the Cedar Valley Services office at 2111 Fourth St. NW in Austin.

But today, integration is key. Pavek and other Cedar Valley leaders haven’t spoken out against single-sort, but Pavek spoke to the county board in July to highlight the importance of the recycling jobs as integrated employment.

Along with industry changes, the movement stems from the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the 1999 U.S. Supreme Court case Olmstead v. L.C., both of which sought to end past national tendencies to isolate and segregate people with disabilities.

Minnesota is currently working to ratify its own version of the Olmstead Plan, and a state committee submitted a draft for approval on Aug. 10.

“This Olmstead Plan is a groundbreaking, comprehensive plan to provide people with disabilities opportunities to live, learn, work, and enjoy life in integrated settings,” the plan’s introduction reads. “We intend this plan to be both a resounding proclamation of our commitment to inclusion and a vital, dynamic roadmap to making our vision a reality for present and future generations of Minnesotans.”

That means if Cedar Valley’s recycling center contract ends, it won’t be as simple as moving clients into a new job.

“We won’t have the option of just bringing these folks back to our facilities,” Pavek said. “We still have to have them moved out into placements.”

Monty Olson grabs a handful of cardboard to place in a bailing machine. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Monty Olson grabs a handful of cardboard to place in a bailing machine. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

‘They’re proud’

Cedar Valley works to gauge a client’s skills, find him or her work, and then help them build enough skills and experience to be successful.

Cedar Valley Services worked with 587 clients in 2014, mostly in Austin, Albert Lea, Faribault and Owatonna. Austin had the most employees with about 222.

The aim is for person-centered planning to get clients’ input on career paths, rather than simply giving someone a job they may or may not like.

“That’s the only way they’re going to be successful,” Pavek said. “We work really hard at matching their skill set and what they like to do too.”

Monty Olson has worked through Cedar Valley since 1996 and has worked at the recycling center more than four years. He worked at Cedar Valley’s pallet line for about nine years, and he’s worked in janitorial.

The work at the recycling center is different, but in a good way, Olson said.

“It is a place for me to work,” he said. “Making money’s one of my favorite things to do. That’s generally the case for everybody.”

Cedar Valley’s Management Services Director Taggert Medgaarden said the jobs are a source of pride.

“They’re proud of what they do,” he said.

Often, the goal is to move clients to their own, private jobs, which many workers have done.

“They’ve moved to restaurants, they’ve moved to janitorial, they’ve moved to Shopko, Hy-Vee,” said Jeff Weaver, the county’s solid waste officer.

 A variety of options

Along with the recycling center, several Cedar Valley clients work to build pallets at the Cedar Valley offices. About 65 people work in custodial services at 40 to 50 business and government sites in Austin. Others work in food service at Riverland Community College’s Austin and Albert Lea campuses.

“Our goal is to find a variety, as many different things as we can,” Pavek said.

Cedar Valley also has a laundry program for several businesses, including several hotels, but the largest contract is with Mayo Clinic Health System at the Austin and Albert Lea locations.

Clients also do paper shredding and have a subcontract for MOM Brands cereal.

“We’re trying to give people a lot of chances,” Pavek said. “I think our goal here is to find what people want to do, and that means trying on different hats or trying on different jobs. If we offer everybody to be a janitor, that’s not going to be the way to go here.”

Cedar Valley aims to help clients be as independent as possible in the highest paying job possible, according to Pavek.

Pavek said one misconception is all Cedar Valley clients are at the same level, which is far from true.

“People have so many different abilities and disabilities,” he said.

“They’re adults, some are married, some have families, some drive to work, some need assistance just to get into a wheelchair — [there are] so many different levels,” he added.

 Moving ahead

If the county opts to switch to single-sort, Pavek said Cedar Valley will honor the contract and help with the transition into the new, Waste Management-run program, which would begin April 1, 2016.

Cedar Valley would meanwhile plan for the workers’ next steps. Pavek and Cedar Valley would evaluate their experience and look to find the workers jobs.

“Of course to find 17 jobs or 14 jobs, that’s not … easy,” Pavek said.

Despite the uncertainty, clients are taking the possible changes in stride.

“If it closes, it closes,” Olson said. “You don’t have much of a choice with that one.”

 The proposed change

Currently, all county properties pay $16 to $18 a year for a recycling program where recyclables must be separated into bins for plastics, paper, and glass and cans, but the board is debating switching to single-sort, where all recyclables go into one bin, as a way to keep more items out of landfills.

Though most neighboring counties have adopted single-sort programs and most indications show single-sort would boost recycling volumes by 30 percent or more, the change would spike costs to as much as $55.36 a year for residential properties.

If approved, the county would contract recycling with Waste Management — the low and only qualifying bidder — to pick up recycling for homes and duplexes. Businesses, churches, government buildings or large apartment complexes would need to contract with Waste Management.

The board could approve countywide curbside pickup for $55.36, or it could opt for pickup only in incorporated cities with eight to 10 rural drop boxes, in which case rural residences would likely pay a reduced fee compared to city residents. Since using rural drop boxes would reduce the single-sort costs, the board could apply more of the savings to rural residences’ bills since they’d receive a reduced service. For example, city residences could potentially pay $48.39 a year for city residential pickup and rural would pay $24.18 to use drop boxes.


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