Annika Schmillen rolls a cart with Italian waffle cone cookies to the food area at the new HomeGoods store in Burnsville. ProAct employment specialist Brianna Otto visits, acting as a sounding board and encourager.

Schmillen is one of a half dozen people with disabilities placed in jobs here with assistance from ProAct. A number of others have been hired at sister stores T.J. Maxx and Marshalls in Eagan.

Better matches and followup

“ProAct is one of the better ones I’ve ever worked with in my career,” said Store Manager Portia Gray, a 21-year veteran with the retailers. She runs the HomeGoods side in Burnsville. The other is T.J. Maxx. Gray spoke of the difference between ProAct’s service and another provider’s.

HomeGoods Store Manager Portia Gray, left, with employee Annika Schmillen and ProAct employment specialist Brianna Otto.
HomeGoods Store Manager Portia Gray, left, with employee Annika Schmillen and ProAct employment specialist Brianna Otto.

ProAct employment specialist Ted Stam tries to match the people he has to the needs of the business, Gray explained. He also asks how the manager feels about each person’s work, what’s happening, if they need more training. “So, they’ve been really good,” she said.

Otto is happy to see Schmillen is learning different job roles. The transition student was placed through ProAct’s Pre-Employment Transition Services. She is observant, said Otto. Schmillen breaks down boxes and organizes product on shelves, most of them bursting with product.

Surprising volume, intense store traffic

There’s plenty to do as foot traffic and sales here have trounced expectations. Gray said leaders expected sales decrease of 40 percent after reopening, but a 75 percent increase occurred. During quarantine, many redecorated, painted and purchased furniture.

On a given Saturday, 30 or more people are waiting outside before opening time. By 11:30 a.m. it’s at a capacity of 322 and newcomers again must wait until others finish their shopping, according to the manager.

The Burnsville outlet on Aldrich Avenue is the largest combination store in the system, she explained. It does $24 million a year in sales and employs 146 people.

Gray said cleanliness and organization are a high priority. Staff are responsible to pick up items that are placed where they don’t belong and restock them. “It’s being mindful of your surroundings.” When helping customers, it’s not about being able to answer every question but being able to find someone else who can help. Gray said Schmillen does a great job with that.

There are times when she will say hi to a customer or “have a good day,” and the customer doesn’t respond. Otto helped her to work through this, assuring her that this is OK and she is still doing her job. Perhaps they didn’t hear her or are not having a good day. It’s doing what a person can to help others have a good day that counts.

Enjoying the setting, products and work

“I really like being busy,” said Schmillen, who attends a transition school, primarily online. On this ProAct visit, she asked for more work hours and worked out a new schedule. She had previously worked a seasonal job at Target, cleaning carts and stocking out of place items.

Schmillen likes seeing the many products carried by the store, such as furniture, pots, pillows and especially rugs. Her family is excited she got the job, and her mother comes in to shop. Some items catch the Annika’s eye, as well. She said she might want to pick them up for her mother when her shift ends.

COVID opens more doors,

Stam said COVID played a role in some stores creating more greeter roles. Some would also work guest exits to help maintain occupancy counts. He said Gray is great and understands ProAct’s role well. “She’s very welcoming and understanding,” he said.

“Its an amazing relationship with the company as a whole,” said Otto.

Schmillen also works the exit door and does some cleaning. A resident of Lakeville, she may attend college, but wants to keep working, as well.

The retailers’ needs match up with many of the individuals ProAct is serving, said Stam. ProAct’s job coaching is appreciated and there are natural supports from managers and coworkers. Gray said ProAct helps find the right person for the right role.