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U.S. Open caterer hires people with disabilities

For many Queens residents, the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows Corona Park represents an opportunity to see amazing tennis played by some of the world’s greatest athletes.

But for others, the USTA National Tennis Center offers something more amazing: the chance to have a job.

The center’s food service, Restaurant Associates, employed 51 men and women with either mental or learning disabilities to help keep the food service area clean as part of a program run by the YAI National Institute for People with Disabilities.

For many of those people, 11 of whom live in Queens, the program was the first time they had had a paying job.

“They take so much pride in what they are doing,” said Elizabeth Plummer, manager of corporate relations for YAI, originally known as the Young Adult Institute.

Based in New York, YAI is a non-profit, government-funded organization that has worked to give jobs to people with disabilities since 1985. Nationwide 70 percent of the disabled are unemployed. Last year YAI placed 230 of participants in its programs with jobs in the metropolitan area.

The 51 workers at the U.S. Open found their jobs as part of the Transitional Opportunity for the Learning Disabled, an Astoria-based program run by YAI.

TOLD begins with a 15-week training course teaching the participants how to behave on the job. The course is followed by an internship and later a paying job.

At the U.S. Open the men and women are paid $6.50 an hour to clean tables, monitor the condiment bar and refill napkin and silverware containers. For every four workers on duty, one YAI staffer watches to make sure everything goes smoothly.

This year marks the fourth that YAI employees have worked at the U.S. Open.

“It’s a lot of interaction with the public,” Plummer said. “This is not an easy job. It’s high volume, high turnover. They need to hustle to get things done.”

Charles Fernandez, a 22-year resident of Queensbridge, received his first paycheck as part of the TOLD program at the U.S. Open last Thursday.

“You don’t have to work for free,” Fernandez said as he smiled. “You don’t do the job for nothing.”

Fernandez, a Yankees and Knicks fan, said he was not nervous when he started work, crediting the training course and an internship at Gold’s Gym in Astoria with giving him confidence.

“I’m told to be on time, to be respectful, kind,” Fernandez said. “Don’t bother people eating, respect them.”

Plummer said the program worked because the workers proved an asset to their employers.

Michael Sullivan, director of operations for Restaurant Associates, said his organization was pleased with its hires.

“YAI’s workers have done a good job and continue to help us meet our staffing needs,” he said. “In today’s job economy, hiring YAI’s workers is simply a sound business decision.”

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 141.

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