I’ve learned many lessons in my life. Some were taught to me by others, and some I learned from my own mistakes. For instance, I’ve learned that when I’m in over my head and unwilling to ask for help, I end up making bad decisions. I’ve also discovered that one bad decision can quickly snowball into a string of bad decision as I try to fix the previous mistake. I think all of us in the Santa Barbara community have had a front row seat to these two principles in action as we’ve watch Haggen move into the neighborhood.
As the struggles seem to pile up, we’ve been made painfully aware of a one particular poor decision that at least on the surface, appears to have targeted the valuable members of our community who have developmental disabilities. Most of us know the details by now, with multiple news outlets reporting the sweeping layoffs that include a disproportionate percentage of employees with developmental disabilities. It was a drastic move that at the very least was mean-spirited and was perhaps even outright discriminatory.
I must admit I am a bit biased. As the president of the board of directors at Alpha Resource Center, an organization committed to helping those with developmental disabilities succeed, and the father of two young children with Down syndrome, this misguided decision by Haggen is something that affects me personally. I know the difficulty faced by the participants in Alpha’s adult day program as they strive to join the local workforce. I know firsthand the effort and ability they possess, working hard and contributing just like any other employee, some with the experience of more than a decade at the job they just lost. And while the comments of Bill Shaner, one of Haggen’s regional executives, may have not been directly aimed at those with developmental disabilities, saying that the layoffs were done “to ensure we’re operating as efficiently as possible” feels a lot like a statement about his view of the contributions made by those with developmental disabilities.
I understand that growing from a chain of a dozen-and-a-half grocery stores to well over a hundred in a short period of time requires a steep learning curve. And we can all appreciate the struggles of any company to make wise, profitable decisions that allow for success, which unfortunately require layoffs at times. I’m also sure we are all saddened that it’s our friends and neighbors, both those with and without a developmental disability, who were fired. Yet what has taken place in our community in the past weeks goes well beyond these acceptable actions.
We’ve made huge gains in the area of employment for those with developmental disabilities, due in large part to the willingness of Vons and Albertsons to include everyone in our community onto their workforce. My hope is not that Haggen would be forced out of business, though I know that this particular decision has led to a loss of a large group of potential customers, myself included. No, my hope is that Shaner and the rest of the executives at Haggen would admit to their mistake, learn from their mistake, and then correct their mistake. Being part of the Santa Barbara community is about more than good produce. It is about treating everyone with dignity and respect, which is exactly what Alpha and our many, many great supporters understand. Bill Shaner, if you would have just asked before moving in, we would have let you know what our community values.
Joshua Weitzman is board president of the Alpha Resource Center of Santa Barbara.