Senator Grassley tours manufacturer Lee Container, highlighting innovative solutions for workforce development & inclusion of autistic employees

August 11, 2023
Robert Varnedoe, Josh Cobbs, Senator Chuck Grassley and Arianna Esposito at Lee Container
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Centerville, Iowa. On Thursday, August 10, 2023, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) joined Autism Speaks leaders and Lee Container President Robert Varnedoe at Lee Container’s Centerville, Iowa manufacturing facility for a site visit and discussion on employment opportunities for people with autism. The visit not only shed light on Lee Container’s work to advance employee development and inclusion of autistic employees, but also furthered discussions on potential workforce development policy solutions to make more opportunities available for every individual who is ready, willing and able to work in their communities. “When communities embrace challenges and empower individuals regardless of their abilities, everybody wins. It’s encouraging to see Iowans teaming up with organizations like Autism Speaks to move this important goal forward,” Grassley said. “I’m grateful to Lee Container’s Centerville staff and members of Autism Speaks for their work and for providing a venue for such productive conversations at today’s meeting.”

Research shows that employing people with autism, intellectual and/or developmental differences leads to positive business impacts, including better morale and improved products, services and bottom lines (Harvard Business Review). However, 81% of these U.S. adults do not have a paid job in the community (National Core Indicators). Addressing this disparity begins with shedding light on obstacles to employment and developing champions for change. Autism Speaks is grateful for Senator Grassley’s commitment to visiting Lee Container and learning how innovative partnerships are creating workplaces where people with autism and other intellectual and/or developmental disabilities can be successful and supported.

Senator Chuck Grassley tours Lee Container's Centerville manufacturing facility

Lee Container first took the pledge to help create employment and leadership opportunities for people with autism through Autism Speaks’ Workplace Inclusion Now (WIN) program in 2020. In successfully implementing elements of the program at their Centerville manufacturer, Lee Container has not only reinforced the program’s ultimate goals to drive awareness and action around inclusion and equity for people with autism but has also taken steps to help empower young adults like the Varnedoe family’s autistic son, reach their full potential through meaningful employment.

After touring Lee Container and speaking with employees on the facility floor, Senator Grassley spoke with Autism Speaks and Lee Container staff about current obstacles to developing an inclusive workforce. Autism Speaks Vice President of Services and Supports–Lifespan Programs Arianna Esposito and Director of Employment Initiatives Josh Cobbs shared the goal of Autism Speaks’ employment programming to create a foundation of sustainability for more diverse, inclusive and accepting workforce in the United States through consumer awareness and community activation, skills development and job preparedness, and workforce commitment and readiness.  “Despite the intelligence, productivity and resourcefulness that autistic employees offer, many companies fail to recognize the potential of these candidates or are not equipped to hire and train them,” said Esposito. “Our goal is to ensure that the opportunities available to people with autism, in and outside of the workplace, reflect the full diversity of their interests and abilities.”

Senator Grassley speaks with Lee Container and Autism Speaks staff

Earlier this year, Autism Speaks presented Senator Grassley with a Congressional Leadership Award for championing the bipartisan reauthorization of Kevin and Avonte’s Law, legislation that prioritizes the safety of individuals with autism. In recognizing the legislation’s role in creating a safer and more inclusive world for people with autism, Autism Speaks opened discussions about the work happening in the senator’s home state to increase inclusion and opportunities within the workforce for people with autism. “The tour and discussion at Lee Container demonstrate Senator Grassley’s continued interest in representing and supporting the autism community,” said Autism Speaks Director of Public Policy Chrissy Raymond. “We are excited to continue working closely with the senator and other members of Congress to explore policy solutions that address the ongoing challenges of workforce development and inclusion.”


View Senator Grassley's News Release