James Cassetta is president and chief executive of WORK Inc., a Boston nonprofit that provides vocational services for people with disabilities with the goal of preparing them for gainful employment and to lead independent lives. Now in its 51st year of operation, WORK Inc. also provides therapeutic services for people with developmental disabilities; housing and support services for the deaf or hard of hearing; and support for families and caregivers. Cassetta, 66, spoke about his career in behavioral health and his ongoing mission to help create more job opportunities for people with disabilities.
1. Cassetta was born and raised in East Boston and was influenced by the social activism of the 1960s. For nine years, he worked at East Boston Social Centers as the settlement house movement neared its end. Then he moved to the North Suffolk Mental Health Association for 21 years, before landing at WORK Inc.
“Growing up, I just felt an affinity to help individuals with challenges. ... Observing the beginning of the civil rights movement, the three assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. absolutely impacted my choice of vocation, absolutely. It made me want to take care of people who are in need.”
2. Through WORK Inc., Cassetta has been able to place 125 people with disabilities in facility maintenance work positions in federal buildings in Boston, New Bedford, and Springfield, including at the JFK Library and Moakley Courthouse. But he said there’s still a dearth of employment opportunities for people with disabilities, especially in the private sector.
“There’s a way to encourage people to choose a path to give them more self-sustainability. It’s easier to get on entitlements than it is to get a job. There are 52 million people with disabilities in this country — PTSD, autism, psychiatric disorders, and developmental disabilities. Out of that group the unemployment rate is 70 percent. In Massachusetts, there are 394,000 on disability [benefits] of working age between ages of 16 and 64. ... The system fails to ask the individual what he or she wants to do. They don’t say, ‘I want to sit at home and collect my disability check and watch TV all day.’ They say, ‘I want to have a meaningful life, be integrated in the community, and have a job like everyone else, and manage my own existence.’”
3. Cassetta is trying to push legislation that would require anyone issued a state contract for service work such as janitorial, landscaping, food services, and snow removal to have a minimum 20 percent work force of people with disabilities.
“I call it a triple bottom line: If you hire a person with a disability to do a full time job, their quality of life goes up; they go off their entitlements; and they do good work. Maybe in time the runaway train of entitlements can slow down. Maybe I’m being a little too idealistic, but I think we’ve proven the paradigm that people can work and have a good quality of life. ... There’s no quota to hire people with disabilities, and I think that’s wrong.”
4. Cassetta’s parents, both children of Italian immigrants, taught him the value of a job at an early age. His father was an electrician at the Boston Navy Yard and drove a cab on the weekends. His mother worked at a bakery.
“The first job I had was a supermarket produce clerk at Liberty Market in East Boston right in Central Square, where the Shaw’s is now. And I had no choice. When I turned 16, my father gave me two things: a 1963 Ford Futura — the bucket seats were awesome; and number 2, he got me a job. He said, ‘You have to go to work now.’ I stayed there nine years; I worked part time during school and during summer full time.”
5. When not dealing with the challenges of finding employment opportunities for people with disabilities, Cassetta can be found relaxing at the casino.
“Work is sort of my first real hobby, but I also like golf, travel, and gambling in Foxwoods or Atlantic City. I play three card poker.”Katheleen Conti can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.