CLEARWATER — Despite the statewide shutdown brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, an agency whose task is primarily to help people with disabilities find jobs, has continued to make placements, particularly at companies including Publix, Walmart and Amazon.
ServiceSource, based in Clearwater and formerly known as Abilities Inc. Florida, also has been able to continue to provide home starter kits and other assistance to veterans with disabilities.
Most employees at the agency have worked remotely since mid-March, providing assistance for job hunters by phone, email and teleconferencing. Some were reassigned to its call center to help with the avalanche of inquiries pouring into the state’s 411 information center.
Katie Bandel, who lost her sight in 2012, was one of ServiceSource’s employees forced to work from home. The Dunedin resident had to master a new technological set-up away from the comfort of the Clearwater office as she provided telephone contacts to people seeking information.
Early in the pandemic, Bandel said many Floridians clamored to reach the governor’s office to ask questions, including about unemployment claims. She said they were relieved to reach a human being and started “sharing everything that has been happening since the pandemic started.”
Bandel, 38, also has been providing numbers to callers from states such as New York and New Jersey who wanted to know whether they can travel to Florida and to callers worried about not being able to renew their driver’s licenses. Bandel, who knows many of the numbers by heart, said she doesn’t consciously memorize them.
“It’s the fact that I have given them out so much, they’re pretty much branded on my brain,” she said. “I like helping people.”
“Katie is a real trooper,” said Dianne Duncan, director of employment and evaluation for ServiceSource. “She is a very quick learner, and we love her positive outlook. We are most pleased with her ability to overcome any challenge she is presented with.”
Duncan said that at first it wasn’t easy to convince ServiceSource staff to work safely from home, but they’ve since adapted.
“At the beginning, it was challenging to obtain personal protective equipment, such as masks, for staff that need to be out in the community, as well as staff that need to come into the office periodically," she said. "We have since been able to obtain an adequate supply of these items.“
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In more normal times, a staff member might accompany a client to an interview at a nursing home or another facility, she said. ServiceSource now provides support by telephone or teleconferencing.
“We serve a variety of individuals, primarily those with disabilities, in many capacities,” Duncan said. “Our employment programs assist individuals with obtaining and maintaining meaningful careers. My programs specifically focus on employment and career guidance and we have staff in Tallahassee, Ocala and here in Tampa Bay.”
Bandel was hired a year ago, after training as a call center operator, to work in the ServiceSource housing division. She will return to that job and the Clearwater office after the coronavirus crisis passes.
Duncan said she was provided with new equipment, software applications and additional training to be able to work remotely.
“I thought I wouldn’t have the ability to do it, just because of my disability," she said. "I did have some hiccups with the text-to-speech technology. Sometimes it wouldn’t read something on the screen.”
Her boyfriend, William Marshall, who also is visually impaired, sometimes came to the rescue. And she would use her iPhone to share her screen with her supervisor. “If it was something that was out of his range, then we would call the IT guys,” she said.
As Bandel spoke by phone on Thursday, her guide dog, Charlie, barked in the background. The golden retriever and Labrador-cross has been with her since 2012.
Within a month after being matched with Charlie, completing Southeastern Guide Dog training and taking him home, Bandel lost her eyesight completely. She went on to learn braille and a screen-reader program at Lighthouse of Pinellas for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Bandel said she had started college in her 20s, but didn’t return after losing her sight.
“I just wanted to get a job,” she said. “I’m definitely excited to get this job. I had been job searching for two years for a good job.”