The Winters Center for Autism, a training institute for young adults with challenges, helps to teach the skills needed to enter the workforce, specifically in the hospitality industry. NewsdayTV's Steve Langford reports. Credit: Newsday/Howard Schnapp

Jake’s 58 Casino Hotel has partnered with a new nonprofit to help train adults on the autism spectrum for jobs in Long Island’s hospitality industry.

The nonprofit, the Winters Center for Autism, teaches young adults employment skills as part of a two-year program. Officials with the organization said the know-how will help them land jobs at major hospitality employers in the region.

“It just seemed like a perfect fit,” said Phil Boyle, president and chief executive of Suffolk OTB and Jake’s. “The very jobs they’re learning are the jobs that we need to fill at Suffolk OTB and Jake’s.”

Participants receive training for jobs in retail, restaurant and hotel work, as well as office and accounting positions. 

Giovanni Lugo of Commack, left, works with job coach Chelsea...

Giovanni Lugo of Commack, left, works with job coach Chelsea Wallace in the hotel training room at the Winters Center for Autism. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

While the partnership does not guarantee jobs for trainees, Boyle said he looks forward to the casino’s ongoing partnership with Winters and the opportunity to interview and potentially hire program participants.

“You could tell just by touring the center what a dedicated and diligent workforce these individuals with autism will be,” he said.

The center, a West Babylon-based nonprofit job training organization, is affiliated with the Winters Family Foundation, which was founded by the late Joe Winters and his wife, Michele, in January 2020. Joe Winters had helped build his family business, Winters Bros. Waste Systems, into Long Island’s largest garbage collection business.

The Winters family has a personal connection to the nonprofit's mission, as Joe Winters' son Sean is on the autism spectrum. The waste business has also made efforts to hire individuals with autism.

Program organizers said the training is a necessity in a job market where jobseekers with autism struggle to land positions.

The program is open to people 18 or older who have completed high school. 

“We started with 40 trainees and now we have almost 100 all together. There’s a huge demand,” said Christine Ponzio, executive director of the center. “The unemployment and underemployment rates for adults with autism exceeds 85%.”

Ponzio said employers can often overlook the value those on the autism spectrum can bring to their business. By focusing on certain soft social skills those individuals might struggle with, employers may be missing out on dedicated and loyal employees.

Even the most well-intentioned employers may not realize that making simple changes, like focusing job interviews on assessing a candidate's ability to do the job instead of treating them like a casual conversation, can help open doors for applicants, Ponzio said. 

Nearly half of employers surveyed between 2019 and 2022 on the effectiveness of workplace accommodations for disabled workers reported that making those accommodations cost them no money, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Labor's Job Accommodation Network.  

To provide hands-on training in a variety of jobs, the center has on-site mock-ups of laundry and hotel rooms, a cafe, and a traditional office setting. Ponzio said the training simulation rooms help participants know exactly what they need in order to impress potential employers.

Nicholas Romano of Nesconset, right, gets training in mailroom operations with...

Nicholas Romano of Nesconset, right, gets training in mailroom operations with job coach Chelsea Wallace  at the Winters Center for Autism. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

“I love every minute of it,” said Nicholas Romano, 32, a Nesconset  resident and trainee at the center who’s been participating since last summer. “You learn how to work and contribute to society. You have great people and a great environment. You actually enjoy coming to work every day.”

Romano, who hopes to land a job doing clerical office work, attends training sessions every Tuesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

“They treat us like equals,” Romano said. “I want to be successful and they actually help me on the way to do that.”

Rohit Bhasin, 32, another trainee, said he loves the staff and trainers at the center and is hoping to find work in hospitality cleaning hotel rooms and providing laundry services after completing the program.

“I want to work in a hotel,” said Bhasin, a North Babylon resident who’s been attending training classes since last August. “I learn a lot from Winters.”

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