Josue Romero Diaz loves his job.
So does Opal Young. And Manny Martinez and Collin Watt and — although I didn’t ask each one individually — so too do the other 126 visually impaired and blind people who work at a manufacturing company called Alphapointe in Richmond Hill, Queens.
After all, there just aren’t that many jobs for blind people. Of the 400,000 people who are blind or visually impaired in New York City, more than 70 percent are estimated to be jobless.
So why wouldn’t Josue, Opal, Manny and Collin be happy! And there are fewer jobs for anyone in manufacturing these days, an area of business that’s becoming less and less prevalent in America and even more extinct within the New York City limits.
I write a lot about jobs in this column, mostly digging into statistics from the Labor Department or quoting the opinions of economists. While that’s necessary, it’s also very impersonal.
So I’m occasionally going to get personal and write about individuals, their hopes, their jobs, their careers. Some of these stories might be heartwarming, some inspirational and others just plain strange.
This will be a little change of pace for me as the writer and for you as the reader. As every major league pitcher eventually learns, you can’t always throw fastballs. You have to keep the reader guessing.
So, I’ll start with Alphapointe, which hasn’t gotten much publicity but should. The for-profit company, which is also connected to a 501(c) (3) charity, has been operating in the Midwest for about a century.
Alphapointe had been in Brooklyn for more than 20 years until rent hikes forced it out. It expanded in 2014 when it acquired New York City Industries for the Blind.
Then in 2017, it moved into a huge 138,000-square-foot brick building now under renovation that covers two full blocks near the Long Island Railroad tracks and J train elevated station at 123rd Street and Jamaica Avenue in Queens.
“Our mission is to provide employment,” says Anthony Luisi, director of development for Alphapointe. “We have 138,000 square feet. We can employ a lot of disabled people.”
The blind workers, along with about 90 sighted employees, produce goods mostly for the janitorial industry as well as clothing for the military and plastic products like scrubbers and pee bags (more on that unique product later).
“There are jobs for every gamut of skill sets,” Luisi says. “Just because you have a disability, doesn’t mean you can’t work.”
Some workers make mops, brooms or toilet brushes. Others sew clothing. They even have a patent pending on a tourniquet.
The blind, as well as those who can see, work the machines and operate the forklifts. Some sweep floors or work in shipping.
Alphapointe workers also get placed by the company with employers around the city, Luisi says. And nobody gets paid less than the new $15 hourly minimum wage, which Luisi says is causing some adjustments. But Alphapointe is managing.
Romero Diaz came to the US from the Dominican Republic, where he taxied people on a motorcycle. In 2001, Romero Diaz was blinded when someone threw ammonia in his face in order to steal his motorcycle.
He’s had a dozen surgeries in the US, and he can give the dates of each from memory. Romero Diaz worked for the Department of Labor until 2013, and then was unemployed for four years.
He started with Alphapointe in 2017. “I have to tell you, I love this job. It’s given more opportunities. I’m moving forward,” he told me the other day.
All the workers at Alphapointe are in the US legally and are either citizens or have work permits.
Opal Young has been at Alphapointe for nine months after being out of work since 2013. She has a B.A. from York College and had been a case manager at a Brooklyn addiction center. Now she works in Alphapointe’s plastic works, where those pee bags are made. (I’ll tell you later.)
She suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease in which the retina is damaged. At Alphapointe, she says, “I’m doing something. I’m not just home moping. I have a purpose.”
Manny Martinez, who started losing his vision when he was around 12 years old, is a machine operator who has been with the company for three years. The people at the company who can see, Martinez says, look out for those who can’t.
Does he enjoy his job?
“Absolutely. It’s more the environment, especially in the mop department. It’s very family-oriented. We always look out for one another,” says Martinez, who walks around wearing a Boston Red Sox cap.
The sight-impaired workers are able to navigate the huge facility thanks to a technology called BlindSquare, a GPS system that tells people with vision problems when they are reaching certain checkpoints. For instance, it’ll alert them when they are 10 feet from the turn for the men’s bathroom.
BlindSquare’s technology also allows workers with only some vision the opportunity to do jobs they normally wouldn’t be able to do — like operating a forklift.
In the old days, the company had to hang rope from the ceiling. When a worker hit a rope, he knew he was, say, 30 paces from the right turn for the bathroom.
Luisi says the blind and visually impaired workers are incredibly dedicated. “When it rains and snows, the sighted people are the ones that stay home,” he says.
OK, so I promised you that I would explain the pee bag — also known as Pilot Relief Bag, which makes perfect sense when you think about it.
Let me explain it this way. You’re a pilot flying a very long distance and you need to use the bathroom. But you aren’t allowed to open the door to the cabin and there are no facilities in the cockpit. Do you understand now what the pee bag is?
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