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This Belfast Employer Began Hiring People With Intellectual Disabilities 20 Years Ago. It Paid Off.

Abigail Curtis
Maine Public
Patricia Saucier of Searsport has worked for Support Services at Bank of America for 20 years.

When Patricia Saucier was a teenager, she felt as if her life story would be defined by what she could not do.As a child, she was diagnosed with an intellectual disability. By the time she was 16, her parents signed her up to receive Supplemental Security Income from the government. They wanted to make sure she would be financially OK, but it made her feel different — and not in a good way.

“I felt like they were saying I couldn’t do anything,” she said.

But Saucier, now 43 and living in Searsport, has found a way to rewrite her story. For 20 years, she and her twin sister, Latricia, have worked for Bank of America’s Support Services team in Belfast. It’s a 48-person group composed entirely of people with intellectual disabilities, and they both have thrived there. They are paid well, get along with their coworkers and like the work. Patricia Saucier was even named employee of the quarter this year.

“I love working here. Even though each of us has intellectual disabilities, the managers never talk down to us. They talk to us. They know we’re adults — we just learn differently,” Patricia Saucier said. “I wish there were more jobs like this out there.”

Credit Abigail Curtis / Bangor Daily News
Margi Stearns of Belfast has been working for Bank of America's Support Services team in Belfast for 19 years.

'This Is A Real Job'

The idea for the Support Services team began 30 years ago in Delaware. That’s when Charles Cawley, the founder of credit card giant MBNA, learned that one of his managers was concerned about the future of his son, who had a disability.

“Mr. Cawley said, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” and started the program, Brian Bragg, the head of Support Services in Belfast, said.

There was a need. According to Special Olympics, approximately 6.5 million Americans have an intellectual disability, such as autism, Down syndrome or limited intellectual capacity. Most such adults are unemployed or underemployed, with about a third working full time, according to a 2014 survey by the sports organization. But the study also showed that people with disabilities can stick with competitive jobs.

That’s been true for Support Services, which was continued by Bank of America after it bought out MBNA in 2005, and which has branches in Delaware, Boston and Dallas, Texas, in addition to Belfast. The department has the lowest turnover in the company, Bragg said, with many Belfast members having worked there since it began 20 years ago.

His team assembles packages, print documents, enter data, do quality control for the company’s nearly 17,000 automated teller machines and more in the in-house marketing and fulfillment arm of the bank.

“It is a successful business model,” he said. “The work that they do is work the company used to send to outside vendors. We turn out a better product, and we keep it in house. We actually save the company money.”

Credit Abigail Curtis / Bangor Daily News
Morris Leathers of Belmont sports brightly-colored American flag suspenders this week while working at Bank of America in Belfast. He's been with the company's Support Services team for almost 20 years.

In other words, it’s not make-work, and the wages reflect that. Team members have the same starting salary as the rest of the company, $17 per hour, and bank officials say the work can reduce their dependence on the government for health care and Social Security funds.

“This is a real job. This is not a sheltered workshop,” Bragg said, “Everyone here is held to the same standards as anyone else who works for the company.”

‘We Do Have Fun'

Walking around the rooms full of people busy at their work stations, the smiles were easy to spot. There was Frank Carr of Searsmont, who has been part of the team for almost two decades and proudly boasted of the “1,200 medals” he has won in the Special Olympics over the years.

Billiejo Stewart of Rockland has also worked for 20 years at the company — and recently celebrated 18 years of marriage with coworker Jared Stewart. They’re among four married couples who met in the department.

Then there’s Retta Goughnour of Belfast, who worked her way up to being a team leader over her 20 years and is buying her first home.

Credit Abigail Curtis / Bangor Daily News
Latricia Saucier of Searsport has been working at Bank of America's Support Services team for 20 years and just got promoted to project coordinator.

“The most important part is the people I work with,” she said. “Oh my gosh, we always try to have fun, don’t we, guys?”

John Carr of Belfast, another Special Olympics athlete and bank long-timer, agreed.

“We do have fun,” he said, adding that with his paycheck he pays his rent, goes shopping, watches movies and has been to Bangor a couple of times to catch WWE. “There’s nice people, and it’s a good place to work.”

This story appears through a media sharing agreement with Bangor Daily News.