UNIVERSITY VILLAGE — For years, keeping a roof over his head was "very stressful," Alex Westphal said.
The 22-year-old moved out of his parents' home at 18 and spent the next four years bouncing from job to job, always earning minimum wage. What made the work most difficult, and made it difficult to land a job in the first place, was his vision impairment.
But Westphal's luck changed this year.
In October 2013, the Illinois Tollway opened a new 22,000-square-foot call center in the basement of a University of Illinois at Chicago building. The tollway crafted a deal for The Chicago Lighthouse, a Medical District nonprofit that helps provide jobs for the blind and visually impaired, to manage call center operations for five years.
Since opening, a push to hire more disabled workers and military veterans at the call center has been a goal, and today, disabled and veteran workers make up more than half of the center's employees, up from less than 5 percent when the center opened.
Westphal is one of the 165 disabled or veteran workers. His vision impairment makes it extremely difficult to focus on an image.
"You should see me try to catch a ball," he joked.
As a call center representative, Westphal earns $10.50 per hour, he said. Before the job, the Oak Forest man never earned more than minimum wage.
"Ever since my new job, life has been way better than before," he said. "Way, way better."
The new call center has specialized features for disabled workers, including larger computer monitors to assist visually impaired staff. Staff at the center handles more than 10,000 tollway customer concerns daily by telephone, email and mail. There are nearly 3.6 million active I-PASS accounts in Illinois, according to tollway figures.
The call center now occupies space in UIC's Student Center East that formerly housed a swimming pool and rec center. The university replaced the outdated rec center with a modern student recreation facility across Halsted Street in 2006. The tollway previously leased space in west suburban Lisle.
The call center job also has helped 49-year-old William Bryant, a Marine veteran who is legally blind and suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease.
The Roseland resident had been unemployed for about a year before he was hired, he said.
"This gives me something to do and keeps me busy," he said. "It gives me a purpose."
Bryant said the job involves dealing with "a lot of irate callers."
"But I feel like you can always talk the person down. I always try to work with them," he said. "I'll make them laugh or joke to break the ice."
Most callers don't know that Bryant is blind, he said.
"[The job] puts us all on the same level, so to speak," he said. "I can basically do anything anyone else can do. I promise you that I sweep a floor better than the average person. It takes me a little bit longer, but it's just that much more thorough [of a job]."
Janet Szlyk, executive director or The Chicago Lighthouse, said that the one-year anniversary of the facility marked a milestone, but their work will continue.
"We're thrilled that by working with the tollway we have helped hundreds of skilled individuals, including veterans and persons with disabilities, find reliable, good-paying jobs," she said.
The Chicago Lighthouse will manage the call center for five years under a $61.5 million contract with the tollway. The nonprofit was awarded the management contract when the tollway committed to bidding the work through Illinois' State Use Program, which is designed to provide long-term job opportunities for people working in nonprofit community rehab facilities.
The tollway agreed to a 10-year, $3.7 million lease with UIC.
Earlier this year, the tollway was named 2014 Agency of the Year by the Interagency Committee on Employees with Disabilities.
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