- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 4, 2021

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - James Minier, 27, is like a lot of young men his age.

He likes to play video games and watch sports on television, especially hockey and mixed martial arts. He likes a good laugh and enjoys his mom’s cooking, especially bacon macaroni and cheese.

And his work is important to him.

His boss, Ashleigh Walters, CEO of Onex Inc., might have guessed that part. From the window of her office at 917 Bacon St., in Erie, she often sees him running the final leg of his trip into work after his mom drops him off outside.

The dash into the building is a short one.



But Minier, a client of the Barber National Institute, which provides services for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, has come a long way.

After years of working at minimum wage, including seven years doing janitorial work at an Erie call center, he’s been given a promotion, new responsibilities and an opportunity, if he works enough hours, to participate in an employee stock ownership plan at Onex.

In short, Minier, who lived at home until a few months ago, could become a part-owner.

He didn’t say no when he got a pay raise, bumping his hourly rate from $7.25 to $9 an hour.

Like many with intellectual disabilities, he receives Social Security benefits. But there is still rent to pay and groceries to buy. Like anyone else, Minier can find a use for the money.

It seems apparent from watching Minier on the job that he’s earning his paycheck.

On a recent Friday, Minier, who was wearing an orange Onex T-Shirt and a black face mask, wielded a cordless drill equipped with a screwdriver head. One by one, he mended broken pallets by power-driving wood screws into place.

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James Minier, Erie

I want to do something for my life. I don’t want to sit in my apartment and be bored all day.

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Onex, which makes industrial furnaces, is left with good-as-new pallets, and Minier, who started out pushing a broom there in February 2019, demonstrates again that he’s pulling his weight.

It’s one of many tasks he might tackle during the workweek.

Minier also works frequently with a small crane that allows him to carefully hoist and maneuver cement casts that weigh at least a couple hundred pounds. He moves the heavy slabs deliberately, careful of his own safety and that they are set down gently.

It takes skill and practice, said Marquise Wallace, a transitional team leader and employment specialist at the Barber National Institute, who helped train Wallace when he changed jobs.

The training lasts as long as it takes for the employer to feel confident in the new hire, Wallace said. That didn’t take long for Minier.

“If you are going to coach someone, he is the type of person you want to coach,” Wallace said.

Wallace said Minier has always been interested in improving himself and learning new things. After his long-time cleaning job ended as part of a large-scale layoff, Minier was eager to try something new.

He tried washing dishes but decided the pace was too fast, Wallace said.

Eventually, he learned of the opening at Onex, where Walters said state Sen. Dan Laughlin, of Millcreek Township, R-49th Dist., had alerted her to the employment program at the Barber Institute. The program, which has placed hundreds in jobs, provides trainers who oversee Barber clients until they are ready to work on their own.

After several months at Onex, Minier was given the chance to be trained for new responsibilities and an opportunity to leave behind his entry-level wage.

“Money is an expression of value,” Wallace said. “Because he is making more money means he has more value, not just to himself but to the company.”

A 2012 graduate of Iroquois High School, Minier confirms those thoughts about the importance of a paycheck.

“I like to earn money,” he said.

But it’s the work and the interactions with his co-workers that interest him most.

“I want to do something for my life,” he said. “I don’t want to sit in my apartment and be bored all day.”

Minier, who works six hours a day, three days a week, admits that once in a while he would rather just stay in bed.

But there aren’t many of those days.

“I have always wanted to work,” he said. “Most days I love work.”

As happy as he is, Minier said his dream job is probably out of reach.

“My whole life I wanted to be a police officer,” he said. “I find out you have to go to a lot of school for it and a lot of tests. Not meant for me.”

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John Barber, CEO of the Barber National Institute

We all want to be valued. I think all work has dignity. We all feel better if we can do something for somebody else.

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James Minier might not be driving a police cruiser and keeping the city’s streets safe as he dreamed about doing as a boy. But like hundreds of other Erie residents with intellectual disabilities, a paycheck has made his life better, according to John Barber, CEO of the Barber National Institute.

“We all want to be valued,” Barber said. “I think all work has dignity. We all feel better if we can do something for somebody else.”

Walters sees evidence of that when she watches Minier and another employee hired through the Barber Institute make a beeline for the door when they arrive.

“They burst through that door,” she said. “It makes me smile. They are just that happy to be here.”

Minier makes that trip into work three days a week. But he’s also thinking about the longer journey that brought him to where he is today.

“From my high school to where I am now, I am really proud of myself,” he said.

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