When construction wasn’t accessible, he found dream job making furniture

After graduating from high school, Phillipe Hernandez dreamed of a job in the construction industry. He liked the idea of working outdoors, using his hands and power tools to build something. 

However, says Hernandez, who was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, “construction wasn't really accessible, at least right now.” 

Still, Hernandez says he was still able to land a dream job in less than a week. He credits Pioneer Resources in Muskegon for helping him make the job match with BOLD Furniture in Muskegon, where he uses power tools to help build the company’s products. 

For people with disabilities, finding employment, let alone work that is meaningful, can be challenging. That’s especially the case in hands-on work like the trades and manufacturing. 

Receptive employer

On the first day of the job search, Hernandez and his advocate from Pioneer Resources, an agency that helps people with disabilities find jobs that are a good fit, visited different businesses. Their first stop was BOLD Furniture, which was advertising for production workers.

The 23-year-old Muskegon company has 60 to 70 employees. It is in the middle of transforming from being primarily a private label manufacturer to focusing on its own brand and products.

Phillipe Hernandez at work at BOLD Furniture. (BOLD)

“We saw a help-wanted sign and went in to talk to the HR person,” Hernandez said. “They were pretty open to trying to find a role in the company for me.”

CEO and owner Todd Folkert says his company is committed to being an inclusive workplace, whether that’s providing opportunities for workers with disabilities or helping workers re-enter the workforce after serving time. 

“We want to create those opportunities,” says Folkert.

 He adds that creating an accessible work space for Hernandez was very doable. 

“We looked at what his needs were and what we needed to do. We've just made some updates to one of our tables and equipment back there so he could work. There were only subtle accommodations that needed to be made, not necessarily dramatic.”

The biggest modification was lowering a work table and switching a machine’s foot pedal to a hand pedal so Hernandez could use it.

Wrap-around services

Oscar Hernandez, Phillipe’s dad, credits Disability Network West Michigan for providing services over the past 17 years that prepared his son for independence.

He has worked with the organization since Phillipe was a toddler, and with Will Wilson, DNWM’s interim CEO.

“He went above and beyond. Everything that we threw at him, we figured out a way to help us,” Oscar says. “Without Disability Network West Michigan, we wouldn’t have known how to help Phillipe. Willie would say contact this person or that person. He always had a suggestion.” 

Oscar says he’s proud of his son and all he’s accomplished, including playing sled hockey. Phillipe is a two-time national sled wings champion, winning the Silver Sticks Finals twice.

“When he was born, I was scared thinking that life was unfair,” Oscar says. “I didn't know what was going to happen with him. He’s become my hero. He’s always figured out how to get around obstacles in his way.” 

Wilson also says he’s proud of all that Hernandez has accomplished.

“Having known Phillipe since he was in grade school, he has always been very driven and determined,” Wilson says. “He never saw life’s challenges as barriers.  It does not surprise us here at Disability Network West Michigan that Phillipe was able to secure the level of employment he desired, as well as seeking the independence of having his own vehicle. “

Job allows independence

In 2022, about 21% of people with a disability were employed, up from about 19% in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics . That is the highest rate since the U.S. began tracking this statistic in 2008. About one-quarter of employed people with disabilities work in skilled trades, with the largest proportion holding jobs in transportation. Construction employs 5.9%, while production is 7.4%.
Hernandez says he was lucky to land his first full-time job so quickly after graduating from Muskegon High School in 2022. The employment has given him more independence. He has earned enough money to purchase his own vehicle through Clock Mobility, a mobility equipment supplier in Cutlerville.

Pioneer Resources worked with Hernandez to identify the kind of work he wanted to do and to look for opportunities to match that interest.

Hernandez describes the Pioneer Resources staff as “very direct and very fast” in identifying employment opportunities. But their work wasn’t complete after he was hired. 

“They're very good about checking up on you and making sure you actually have the stuff that you need to succeed” at the work site, Hernandez adds. 

Workplace is good fit

Hernandez, born with spina bifida,  wore leg braces and used crutches as a child, but as he grew, he switched to a wheelchair for mobility so he could move at a faster pace.

He is the first person who uses a wheelchair that BOLD has employed. 

“There was a lot of conversation early on in terms of what department would be a good fit for him, evaluating our production facility, and then determining where in the Corian department would be a good fit for him,” Folkert says.

The department creates tops used to create nursing stations, conference tables and other commercial furnishings. The multiple-step process includes sanding, gluing and final shaping.

His co-workers at BOLD have been welcoming.

“The people around are very nice and very friendly,” says Hernandez, who makes Corian countertops. “There's no tension in the workplace, which is great.” 

Folkert says he has enjoyed the opportunity to get to know Hernandez better, and the two have had several conversations.

“I met him when he first started,” Folkert says. “He's a great guy and I’m glad he’s part of our team.”

This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.

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