Mornings can be hectic at The Modern Dog Boston in Dorchester. Patrons stream through the doors of the dog-walking and grooming business, dropping off their pets for appointments and looking for walk-in slots. Employees shepherd animals from the cleaning basins to the grooming stations. Reluctant dogs bark and whine.
This is right where Nancy Saleski wants to be. Saleski, 51, has an intellectual disability that has made it hard to find fulfilling work, but for the past three years, she has found it here. With just 13 employees, The Modern Dog doesn’t meet the 50-worker threshold required to be ranked in Top Places to Work. But small companies like this can provide opportunities that bigger employers sometimes can’t.
Saleski landed her part-time job through WORK Inc., a nonprofit that serves adults with disabilities. Kristen Piccolo, manager of the organization’s Pathways to Careers program, says Saleski’s skills are well-suited for The Modern Dog. “We knew that Nancy just loved animals, and she was also very neat and tidy at home,” Piccolo says. “So we thought there was something here that she could get into.”
Saleski’s favorite task is washing out the tubs where dog washers spray the animals down, according to Abigail Genduso, a WORK Inc. employment facilitator. Her other responsibilities include scrubbing down the pads where dogs get their fur brushed and cut, making sure towels aren’t damp when they come out of the dryer, and bringing up clean laundry from the basement. But the most meaningful things for Saleski are the satisfaction of being part of a productive workplace — and spending time with the dogs.
Until recently, Saleski, like many people with intellectual disabilities, held a job in a sheltered workshop, a workplace exclusively or largely staffed by people with disabilities. She performed simple, repetitive tasks for low pay — in some instances, less than a dollar per hour. Jobs like those provide little social interaction, critics say, and have high turnover. In recent years, the state has pulled funding for sheltered workshops, instead pushing for more enriching vocational approaches. Money for Saleski’s training and supervision came from sources that may, in prior years, have been devoted to those workshops. Disabilities advocates have increasingly looked to small businesses to find meaningful jobs for groups they support.
For Saleski, the results have been positive. Though she’s making minimum wage, the income is a significant upgrade. She lives at a group home, and her living expenses are mostly covered by family support and public assistance, so the job lets her buy odds and ends she otherwise couldn’t afford. A regular purchase? “Snacks!”
Often, Saleski can work independently, though Genduso sometimes comes by to help her perform tasks in the proper order or remember a responsibility. Saleski now wears a timer on a necklace, for instance, to remind her to check the laundry. Such supervision can be labor intensive, but Genduso says it’s less work than helping her find and learn a new job.
Charles Maneikis, owner of The Modern Dog, has worked with people with disabilities in prior jobs, so he was receptive when WORK Inc. approached him. And Saleski has turned out to be a real help. Having her on staff “brings the morale up of everyone else who works here,” he says.