An employee at Constitution Hall in downtown Lansing stops to get a coffee before work at the snack bar. As they are paying for their drink, the employee notices that the man working the cash register is blind.
These visually impaired employees are a part of the Business Enterprise Program (BEP) of the (Michigan) Bureau of Services for Blind Persons. This program offers employment opportunities to blind and visually impaired people.
Professor at McMaster University and expert in developmental disabilities Penny Salvatori said that job opportunities are very limited. A few employers like Wal-Mart have policies to employ people with disabilities; however, their disabilities tend to be minimal.
“I’m not familiar with the BEP program; however, all of these kind of programs are essential in order to fight for equal opportunities and make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities,” Salvatori said.
The BEP specifically licenses blind individuals to run and manage their own food service establishment.
This program was established after Congress passed the Randolph-Sheppard Act of 1936. This provided opportunities for blind individuals in federal locations. The Public Act 260 of 1978 established opportunities for State of Michigan properties.
The Michigan Business Enterprise Program Manager James Hull said that visually impaired individuals can become part of the BEP by taking initial testing and then a training program. Once in the program, operators find a job by using the bid line. This phone line lists all facilities up for bid. An operator can call and say they are interested and one person is chosen for the location.
Hull said that the program provides training, initial inventory of products for sale, equipment and a location to set up and start operations of their own business.
Robert Essenberg has been an operator in the program since 1985. Essenberg started out in a Muskegon county building and moved to different locations around the state such as Grand Rapids and Pontiac until he ended in Lansing at the Operator Center snack bar. Essenberg is also an operator at the Michigan Secretary of State and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in Lansing.
The BEP provides employment opportunities at cafeterias and snack bars in federal and state buildings, as well as vending operations in these locations and rest stops on highways.
“The primary function of the program is to assist blind people in getting remunerative employment,” Hull said. “Blind individuals have the highest unemployment rate in the country, it’s roughly 80 percent, so this affords them to start their own business to provide not only for themselves but for their families and assist them in getting off public assistance.”
Essenberg said he found it difficult finding employment in the field he graduated in, being blind. The BEP helped Essenberg find a job when he graduated and has provided him with a steady income for the last 30 years.
“It (BEP) opened up an opportunity for blind individuals to enter the workforce or enter self employment with a level of security that they wouldn’t have if they were going out and opening up a business in the state on their own,” Essenberg said.
Going forward, Hull said they are trying to set up opportunities to run commissaries in county jails and eventually state prisons. They are also looking to set up kiosks that would be run by BEP licensees where incarcerated could make calls and send emails.
The BEP also signed a contract introducing state of the art vending, which will initiate greater vending operations.
Meet some of the operators
While the BEP has operators all over the state of Michigan, it has a large presence in the Lansing area. There are many people who have been affected by the program and would like to see it grow in the future.
Tocco first learned about the BEP in the late ‘90s. In 2002 he looked more into it, went through the initial testing to enter the program, and took a four-month training course to become an operator.
Tocco started out in downtown Detroit and then had a vending route for a few years after. Now Tocco lives in Lansing and is the operator of the snack bar, vending and catering services in Constitution Hall and the George W. Romney Building in downtown Lansing.
While primarily working at the cash register, Tocco also manages four employees and makes sure the business runs smoothly overall.
“It has been good for me as it turns out, but I definitely had to work my way up,” Tocco said.
When talking about the BEP, Tocco said his job in Lansing has helped him and he makes good money. However, it hasn’t always been that way. Some of the places Tocco said he worked at when he first entered the BEP were not very good. The location he is at now is one of the better ones in the program. It took Tocco three moves and a few years to find a good location.
“It’s a good program, but if there are 60 locations, there’s a lot of them that are really little that they are looking to combine into bigger ones,” Tocco said.
Tocco said he thinks that is the direction that they should go in. There would not be as many jobs, but they would be good jobs. A lot of the stands make a few hundred dollars a day and it is hard to get by on that.
“You take these little ones and you’re broke and you get into debt and borrowing money from people and you’re trying to survive and have a place to live and before you know it your shelves are getting less and less empty, people are complaining and it just spirals out of control,” Tocco said. “Some of that could be avoided if they started in a place that makes decent money to begin with.”
Heisser worked for the School for the Blind in the Michigan Department of Education for 17 years. Before he was laid off, Heisser heard about the BEP from a friend, who then offered him a job. Heisser worked with his friend for a year and a half and then decided to go through the training himself.
Heisser worked in the cafeteria at the Secretary of State for three years. From there, Heisser worked at the Capitol Commons on Pine Street in downtown Lansing for 12 years and has been managing the snack bar in the Grand Tower Building for three years.
Heisser said that the program offers a lot of hand on opportunities with changing facilities and working with people who worked in that position previously.
“Like I said, because I was laid off and I wanted to continue my state years of service; that was a big help to me,” Heisser said. “Just the interaction with all of the different people who come into the building and stuff, I really enjoy that.”
Heisser also said the program was a big help because if someone was to own their own business, they would have to take care of all expenses. All of the operators pay 10 percent of their monthly sales to the bureau, however they provide all of the equipment in order to successfully run the business.
Ploch is the current operator of the cafeteria in the Ottawa Building in downtown Lansing, which is the largest facility currently in the state program.
Ploch looked for employment in the State of Michigan in 2003, but after a hiring freeze, he looked at the BEP. He entered the program in the spring of 2003 and has been in the program for 14 years.
Ploch started at the Department of Corrections Headquarters for three years. Then he moved to the George W. Romney Building for three years, reopened a cafeteria in the Lewis Cass Building after that and has been at his current location in the Ottawa Building for six years.
Ploch said that the program is able to offer services to employees and operators by allowing them to run a business and by making it affordable. Without the program, the cost to rent space would be higher and product prices would increase.
“It’s definitely broadened my business skills for sure. It’s kind of a win-win for myself and for the employees in the building; it’s allowed me to run a facility without all the over head I would need,” Ploch said.
Ploch currently has nine employees at his location. He said that is very hands on; he does the banking and picks up groceries.
“I’ve trained myself to where there’s a few things I can fill in, you know, I run the register, I can do dishes, I can serve on the line,” Ploch said. “With my impairment, I don’t do much of the cooking, I don’t do the grill work, it’s just too fast paced and there’s too many moving parts for me. But when you own your own business, the more you are able to do yourself if you need to, the better off you are.”
Ploch said the whole point of the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons is to either learn skills that will help them to enter the workplace, day to day skills or being trained to work in the BEP.
One thing Ploch said he would like to see is more marketing of the program; a lot of people don’t know about it. Ploch would also like to see people who just get out of training and become operators receive more support.
Mann said she lost a majority of her vision in 2008, but has been low vision all of her life.
Mann retired from working as an investigator in the court system after 18 years and in 2009 went to the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons Training Center in Kalamazoo on how to live being blind. Mann heard about the BEP from a friend. She returned to the training center in 2010 to complete training for the BEP and began temporary operatorship at the Hall of Justice.
Mann then went on to run the cafeteria at the Michigan State Police Headquarters; a location no blind person had run before. Mann’s main location is the Michigan State Police Headquarters, but she also runs multiple satellite locations at the Capitol, House of Representatives (Anderson House Office Building), and Department of Corrections. She is the first person to run more than one location in the program.
“With the blind community, we are the most underemployed individuals in the whole country,” Mann said.
Mann said she is involved in the program because she has a passion for it and for blind individuals to be able to run these locations and make a living.
“It’s a lot of work, but the beautiful thing for me is I’m able to employ people and that’s been the driving thrust, is to give people jobs. I think we’ve had as many as 11 employees,” Mann said. “That is why I’m involved in the program, I love the program, I believe in it. I believe wholeheartedly that it does afford blind individuals the opportunity to do something maybe not in their realm of comfort, but the training should be sufficient enough to pick up on to say this is what’d I’d like to do.”
Mann said she has met a lot of great people through the program and it has allowed her to challenge herself because there is always something more to be done.
In the future, Mann would like to see the program get more involved in the public sector; county buildings, airports, and even adding more locations.
“I’d like to see us be able to foster new relationships and better relationships with other vendors and have that competition be available and making sure every location has everything they need to succeed,” Mann said.