Tapping into an overlooked talent pool

Bo Kwon on how his restaurant business benefits from employing people with disabilities

By Bo Kwon, Owner, KOi Fusion

Originally published in the Portland Business Journal on January 3, 2018

Eight years ago, I launched my dream — a Korean-Mexican infused food truck. Since then, our small business has rapidly grown. KOi Fusion is now one of the most popular and recognized eateries in Portland with four operational food trucks and six non-mobile locations.

As a small business owner, I’m always on the hunt for talent to help my business thrive. Businesses benefit from drawing from a wide pool of talent, especially one with diverse candidates. With the state’s unemployment rate at an all-time low of 4.3 percent, there’s a shrinking pool of workers for businesses to hire from. For our bottom line, it’s more critical than ever to diversify and expand the talent pool from which we choose our workers.

One way that I’ve grown my business is by tapping into an underutilized workforce: people with disabilities.

One way that I’ve grown my business is by tapping into an underutilized workforce: people with disabilities. Three of my employees experience disabilities. Like all of my employees, they’re capable, reliable and an asset to my business. Giving people who usually don’t get a shot the chance to prove themselves is something I enjoy.

Continue reading this story at Disability Rights Oregon, here.

Supported Employment Wraps Services Around People & Employers

According to research by The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the employment rate of people with common mental disorders (CMD) is around 60 to 70 percent and 45 to 55 percent for people with serious mental disorders (SMD).

Many other people with mental disorders want to work but cannot find jobs.

OECD’s research stresses the state of being unemployed itself is very detrimental to mental health. The OECD also states there is evidence that people with mental health challenges who find a job see significant improvements in their life.

Jon Brumbach, Senior Policy Analyst at Washington State Health Care Authority believes that a program known as supported employment is crucial in helping individuals with behavioral health challenges (which includes mental health and substance use disorders) find and keep employment.

“If we can help our population find housing and employment we know it will improve their overall health outcomes,” he said.

Brumbach believes that not only will supported employment positively impact individuals with behavioral health challenges, it will also help employers who are struggling to fill open jobs in a robust economy.


The program includes two Medicaid benefits: supported employment and supportive housing services. “We know that to help individuals with behavioral health challenges stabilize their personal lives and manage their complex health needs, they needed broader support outside their clinical support system,” said Brumbach.

The supported employment service is a benefit that wraps a web of support around an individual to help them find and keep jobs while supporting the employers who hire them.

There are many types of vocational programs for people with mental illness; however, people who participate in supported employment program also called Individual Placement and Support (IPS) are almost three times more likely to gain employment than those who engage in other types of vocational programs. IPS has been thoroughly researched and is a specific set of supported employment services that help more people with mental illness or substance use challenges obtain employment than any other type of vocational program.


Often a medical provider or a caseworker will refer an individual to a supported employment (SE) provider. In Washington State, AmeriGroup administers supported employment services. Together, the SE provider and the individual work on developing a career path as well as identifying barriers to success and addressing those barriers with the intent of initiating the job search process as rapidly as possible.

“Part of the role of the supported employment provider in engaging with employers is to learn about their needs and identify supports available when they hire the individual.  These services also identify opportunities and resources for those employers while supporting the individual to become a successful employee” said Brumbach.

In some cases, through the analysis of the business’s needs, they’ll work out a solution known as job carving. They’ll ask the employer, ‘Is there a way we could carve out some of the tasks that may be a better fit with the skills and talents of the individual being served.’ Job carving helps a potential employee add maximum value to the employer in a competitive environment.

All of the jobs pay minimum wage or higher.

“Ultimately, we want to get individuals in the competitive employment process which provides the best environment for stability, growth, and advancement,” said Brumbach.

Individuals with behavioral health challenges can be a value-add to any team. Supported employment is a resource for both the employee and the employer. It is the right thing to do for the individual, but it is also an opportunity to diversify the workforce with an untapped labor pool with skills, talents, and abilities to contribute to organizations in need of additional workers — at the end of the day it is good for individuals, and it is good for business,” said Brumbach.

The good news is that this evidence-based approach helps people with behavioral health challenges find and keep jobs in their communities.

For more information about employment, visit AmeriGroup’s website here.