When Jeffrey Merlin joined the staff of Fairfax County's sheltered workshop for the handicapped two years ago, he was seeking a job where he could see tangible results of his work.
He also wanted a change from his previous three years spent as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor in Buffalo, N.Y., and was hoping for a chance at administrative responsibilities.
The sheltered workshop in the Fairfax City suits him on all counts.
Merlin said that during his two years as rehabilitation coordinator for the Op Shop, 3987 University Dr., he has seen many handicapped and retarded employees of the workshop improve their earning power and others "graduate" to jobs outside the workshop. Their accomplishments give him a sense of satisfaction.
Last month, the shop's board named Merlin, 30, executive director. He had been acting director since July. Merlin has bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of New York.
The Op Shop is run by Fairfax Opportunities Unlimited, a non-profit corporation funded through work and business contracts and funds from county, city, state and federal government programs and charitable organizations. Their annual budget is approximately $475,000.
About 100 handicapped and retarded persons are now employed by the shop in a variety of tasks and Merlin reports that the workshop is growing at a rate of two new employees per month. It is now the only sheltered workshop in the county and also serves Fairfax City and Falls Church. The county has funded a second workshop for Mt. Vernon next year.
Employees are usually paid on a piece rate but may also be paid hourly rates. Last week employees were assembling kidney function donation placards and containers, stuffing and addressing envelopes for one of their regular mailing customers, assembling packages for Fairfax Hospital and sewing labels on custodial shirts for the public school system.
To determine the piece rate, the staff gets competitive rates from the labor department or an estimate of how many similar pieces can be completed by the average worker in an hour. It is then divided into a per piece rate for the employees.
"At times no figures are available," Merlin said. Then the staff members do the work themselves for an hour, find an average number an divide the minimum wage by the number of items completed.
Regular business contracts for the Op Shop include laundry and bus boy service for the Pentagon athletic club and blueprint reproductions for the county zoning commission.
Merlin said shop employees print names on pens for some companies, do a lot of packaging, shrink sealing and other manual tasks.
The business contracts now account for about 30 per cent of the budget. Merlin is trying to build it up to 50 per cent.
"At 50 per cent, we would be pretty secure as an on-going concern," he said. Staff members are responsible for recruiting business contracts.
To qualify for workshop employment, the client must be mentally, physically, emotionally or developmentally disabled and must be at least 16 years old.
Usually, potential employees are referred by other social agencies or schools in the county. They are interviewed by the professional staff, and a decision is made on whether or not that person could benefit from the program, according to Merlin.
In the sheltered environment, employees are allowed to work at their own pace. They are encouraged to increase their speed at work tasks, as part of their training but never as a condition of employment, Merlin said.
Much of the initial training effort of the 20 staff members and rehabilitation specialists is spent in helping employees learn work rules such as promptness, sitting still for the task and calling in when they are ill. Time is then spent on improving skills, Merlin explained. A job placement counselor is on the staff for those ready to leave the sheltered setting.
The staff also provides counseling in other areas, Merlin explained.A staff member may take an employee to the bank with his first pay check to open a savings or checking account, he said.
Employees range in age from 18 years to 61 but about 75 per cent are between 20 and 30 years old. The average daily attendance at the shop is about 80 per cent.
"Our ultimate goal is to help each employee reach his maximum vocational potential. We want him to be as independent as possible," Merlin said. For those who "graduate" there is an alumni association that meets monthly.
Although the staff works from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, shop employees do not begin until 10:15 a.m.
"This is not our choice," Merlin said. "Public transportation is often inaccessible." He said most employees rely on school buses to get to work. "Some have to ride as long as an hour and a half to get there."
Fairfax Opportunities Unlimited was incorporated in 1971 and the Op Shop opened in 1972. It is run by a 15-member board composed of parents, professionals and community business persons.
The board sets policy and hires the executive director who is then responsible for staffing and running the Op Shop.
Residents of the community can become members of Fairfax Opportunities for $5 annual membership dues.
The board is chaired bY David Munson of Annandale. The secretary is Mary Jane Billinger of Vienna and the treasurer is James Ammons of Fairfax. There is now one vacancy on the board.
Other board members are: F. Mather Archer of Fairfax, William J. Callaghan of McLean, Robert J. Murrin of Springfield, Ralph L. Nagler of Springfield, Mark E. Shoob of Annandale, H. Edward Tym of Annandale, John Gilmore of Fairfax, Hilary W. Jenkins of Annandale, Ina M. Shores of Vienna, Marjorie Spuhler of Fairfax and Dr. Scottie Torres Higgins of Fairfax.
Besides the Op Shop, Fairfax Opportunities rns a gift shop and an "as is" thrift shop called Elizabeth's Ark with the proceeds from both going to the Op Shop.
Information on the shops, employees or business contract work is available by calling 273-7777.