Portland Business Gets Tax Credit, and Great Employees

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PORTLAND — Kristen and Geoff Zephyrus moved Cognitive Surplus to Portland a few years ago. They then started looking for dependable employees to help their growing business.

Kristen had a friend whose son had a good experience in another state. He was in an internship program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Karl Stevens, the warehouse manager for Cognitive Surplus, is legally blind. He believes strongly in giving people with disabilities the opportunity to work.

“It was important to us to hire people of diverse abilities,” Kristen said.

“We want to empower people who might otherwise be overlooked by employers and give them an opportunity,” Karl said. “It’s not charity. It’s a job and an opportunity to be a contributing member of the community.”

Cognitive Surplus connected Kia Swain with the Youth Transition Program (YTP). YTP is a collaborative partnership between the following:

·  Vocational Rehabilitation (VR)

·  Oregon Department of Education

·  University of Oregon

VR funds the program through grants to local school districts. The purpose of YTP is to prepare students with disabilities for employment or post-secondary education. YTP does so through pre-employment transition activities and supports.

Kia is a YTP specialist who serves several Portland high schools. Kia went to Cognitive Surplus to learn what the business does.

“I learn the employer’s needs so I can find a student who has the strengths and skills that fit,” she said.

Cognitive Surplus’s slogan is “Science Meets Design.” The company designs and distributes housewares, stationary and lifestyle wares with science themes.

Employee Forrest Gulbransen packs boxes for shipping at Cognitive Surplus. Photo Credit: Angela Yeager

The owners told Kia they needed an employee who could handle physical parts of the job. Also, someone who wouldn’t mind the repetitive nature of stocking and shipping products out of a warehouse.

“When I learned more about their business, I knew Forrest would be perfect,” Kia said.

Kia referred Forrest Gulbransen who had just graduated from Benson High School. He recently celebrated one year on the job. Forrest, 20, works 32 hours per week packing orders and scanning goods.

“The job is doing the same thing over and over again, and I like that,” Forrest said. “I don’t do well with change.”

Karl said after many failures trying to find employees by advertising in classified services, he was thrilled to find a dependable employee.

“Forest is extremely efficient, respectful and dedicated,” Karl said. “I wish I had an army of people like him.”

Miriam Perez-Luna works on folding t-shirts for shipping at Cognitive Surplus. Photo Credit: Angela Yeager

The owners of Cognitive Surplus decided to take advantage of the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC). WOTC is a federal tax credit for employers who hire people from certain targeted groups who consistently faced significant barriers to employment. Employees referred by VR are one of the groups allowed by WOTC. While it isn’t the reason employers hire a person with a disability, the tax credit can make a difference for a business.

Kristen said the company has hired two more employees through YTP.

Gami Jimenez, 19, works full-time doing quality control on merchandise. Gami also stocks and tags goods. Miriam Perez-Luna, 18, works 24 hours per week. Miriam packs and ships the company’s t-shirts, which are screen-printed in-house.

About Author

Angela Yeager is a Communications Officer with the Department of Human Services' Employment First initiative. Employment First is a collaboration with the Office of Developmental Disabilities Services, Vocational Rehabilitation, and the Oregon Department of Education to promote community employment for Oregonians with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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