(WBIR- Blount County) Walgreens stores in East Tennessee are hiring more people with disabilities than other stores in the state, said Doug Hamburger, district manager for Walgreens in the Knoxville area.
In 2007, Walgreens began hiring people with disabilities to work in their warehouses. The company developed the REDI program, retail employees with disabilities initiative, to expand the opportunities to stores.
The pharmacy company aims to hire 40 percent people with disabilities in the warehouses and 10 percent in the stores, Hamburger said.
The initiative was proposed by Walgreens former senior vice-president Randy Lewis who had a son with autism.
So far, one store in Blount County employs people with disabilities and four stores in Knox County. The company says the program has been so successful that it is expanding to Anderson County with stores in Oak Ridge and Clinton.
Ronnie George went through the REDI program and was hired by a Walgreens in Maryville more than a year ago.
"Even though I have a disability, I can still work just as hard as anybody else can," George said. "I can do a lot of things. A lot more than what other people think."
He said he had been out of work for two years before Walgreens hired him. He learned how to use a cash register, stock shelves, interact with customers, and clean the store.
"I had never worked a cash register, and so that was quite a bit of a challenge for me," he said. "But the more I did it, they always say practice makes perfect."
Charles Lindsey, a store manager for Walgreens, said Ronnie was one of the best candy sellers in the store within his first two weeks on the job.
"That took a lot of confidence and personality for him to say 'would you like to buy a candy bar' because when he started, he didn't have that," Lindsey said.
Hamburger said Walgreens pays people with disabilities more than minimum wage, which is exactly the same as other employees.
"We expect them to do the same work, to have the same responsibilities, and to do it just as quickly as our regular employees, and so their wages are exactly the same as the rest of the team in the store," he said.
Hamburger said a partnership with five agencies through the Knoxville Employment Consortium has helped the program take off in East Tennessee.
Lindsey said he hopes other employees will see the benefit of hiring people with disabilities.
"The morale picked up significantly when REDI people were working in my store."