People with Disabilities

Leah Burdick, PRIDE Industries Chief Growth Officer, recently spoke with Doug Thomas of the Sacramento Public File Podcast. In this interview, Leah explains PRIDE Industries’ support for Autism Awareness Month and its plans for the annual Big Day of Giving. The written interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Doug Thomas: I’m Doug Thomas, and my guest this morning is Leah Burdick, Chief Growth Officer for PRIDE Industries. Good morning, Leah.

Leah Burdick: Hello, Doug. Nice to speak with you.

Doug Thomas: Leah, please share about the history of PRIDE Industries.

Leah Burdick: PRIDE Industries was founded in 1966 in Auburn, and it was started by parents whose adult children with disabilities were unemployed. The parents wanted to create meaningful employment so that they could earn paychecks and start to take care of themselves. Fast forward to today, we’re in 16 states plus Washington, D.C., with over 5,000 employees.

Doug Thomas: Wow. Quite the success story started by concerned parents. Well, Leah, April is Autism Awareness Month. So, let’s talk about the misconceptions that employers have about hiring someone with autism. First, there is unconscious bias, right?

Leah Burdick: Yes. Think about some of the tools used for hiring, even artificial intelligence tools. If you don’t have eye contact, it’ll cut you out of the process. We’ve all been taught that a firm handshake, looking the interviewer in the eye, and idle chit chat to get to know you are important, right? These are behaviors that folks on the autism spectrum can be uncomfortable with. These traits are due to differences in their brains. And that’s why the CDC reports that 85 percent of adults with autism are unemployed. Luckily, employers are now waking up to the fact that this is a great potential group of people to hire if placed in the correct roles.

The next level of understanding is how people with autism’s brains are different and how to accommodate that because the benefits can be pretty significant. Harvard Business Review has reported people with autism are considered neurodivergent, and teams that have neurodivergent professionals can be 30 percent more productive. JP Morgan Chase established its Autism at Work program to recruit and manage employees with autism and found that employees who were autistic made fewer errors and were 140 percent more productive than neurotypical peers in certain areas of the business. Companies just can’t ignore these findings, especially given the labor shortage.

Doug Thomas: Those are some amazing numbers.

Leah Burdick: Absolutely. Autism is a spectrum, and all people are different. Some need more support than others. It’s about working with the person, understanding where their strengths are, and matching those strengths to roles within a company.

Doug Thomas: You mentioned that PRIDE Industries is all over the country now. So, let’s talk about some of the global and local companies that partner with you.

Leah Burdick: One that’s really fun to highlight during Autism Awareness Months is Knee Deep Brewing up in Auburn. And they have just launched a special brew to drive awareness for autism called the Hoppy Roger.

It’s a pirate theme, and that was developed by the PRIDE Industry employees with autism who work for brewery bottling and packaging the beer. They did this last April, and it was so popular that they brought back their autism awareness special brew this month. The photo on the label features caricatures of all the PRIDE Industry employees. We’re very grateful to them for helping raise awareness.

Doug Thomas: Well, just so you know, I live in Auburn, and I’ve actually been to Knee Deep, and I’ve had one of those and they’re delicious.

Leah Burdick: Across the country, we work at military bases and at government facilities. Locally we work for the different counties in the area. We also work for VSP, SMUD, Raley’s, and Walgreens. We’re also at Thunder Valley Casino. We do all the laundry there.

We do facilities management where we’ve got everything from landscaping and cleaning through to engineering. HP is a very large supply chain customer and our manufacturing facility, it runs the gamut because we provide manufacturing services, we provide everything you’d need to run a building.

And then we do kind of individual placements in the community with companies who are looking for people for different roles.

Doug Thomas: Do you know if there are any local PRIDE Industries partners with current job openings right now?

Leah Burdick: We certainly have job openings in our manufacturing and commercial facilities businesses. People can go to our website,, and look at our job board. If you have a disability and you need help even just getting on a career path and understanding what services are available to you, you can call our free I AM ABLE helpline at 844-426-2253, and a representative will point to you in the direction of the different jobs we have available.

Doug Thomas: Believe it or not, we’re already running out of time, Leah. But before we go, tell me what you’re doing for the Big Day of Giving this year.

Leah Burdick: We’re running a campaign to support our helpline, which is fully funded by donations. It’s the only resource of its kind in the country that we’re aware of that connects people with disabilities with the services that I mentioned to help them with job placement. We’re on track to help over 2000 people this year, and we continue to grow. A donation to PRIDE Industries during the Big Day of Giving will help support running and expanding this helpline.

Last year we placed over 130 people into jobs, and we helped close to 900 get connected to services to get on the path to employment.

Doug Thomas: You’re doing some amazing work, my friend. Thank you so much for joining me this morning. Leah Burdick is the Chief Growth Officer for PRIDE Industries. This has been The Public File. I’m Doug Thomas. Be good to each other and thanks for listening.

Multiple studies have found that employees with autism can add measurable economic and productivity benefits to businesses. PRIDE Industries’ Darelyn Pazdel shares in SHRM how you can become a champion for employees with autism and harness the benefits of an inclusive workplace.

Jasmine Long has always been tenacious about overcoming challenges. From a young age, she had three goals: Get an education. Get a job. And get a vehicle.

But there’s another trait, one she traces back to adolescence, that spurred her on to the career she has today.

“I’ve always been very empathetic,” said Jasmine. “The kind of person who wants to help people overcome challenges.”

Born with Spina Bifida, Jasmine is no stranger to challenges.

“I’ve had help, and I wanted to be like the person who helped me,” she said.

Unfortunately, when it came time to find employment, Jasmine wasn’t always afforded the opportunity.

“I’d have been happy even working a Walmart job,” she said. “As long as I could get there. Or fast food, but my arm can only reach so far onto shelves or out an order window. And there’s no room at the ordering stations for my wheelchair.”

Though these obstacles barred Jasmine from certain types of employment, she had, by 22, gained significant job experience. For 2 ½ years, as part of a community college work-study program, she’d worked as a math tutor. But after graduating, even though she was obviously qualified, none of her job applications yielded an interview.

 “When you graduate community college, you can’t do a work study job any longer,” she said. “So, one of the first jobs I applied for was an online tutor position.”

She thought she’d be a shoo-in for that, but all she got was a form letter stating that she didn’t get the job—with no disclosed reason. That was the start of a frustrating chapter for Jasmine.

“I applied mostly for online jobs,” she said.

At the time, Jasmine didn’t have a vehicle, and even if she had, it would then have to be formatted with hand controls. (Jasmine’s disability affects her legs, but not her arms and hands.) Then, to drive the vehicle, Jasmine would have to take specific classes. She and her mom weren’t in a position to make all of that happen.

“I also knew that, with public transportation, there are set times you have to go and leave,” said Jasmine. “Many employers won’t accommodate that.”

The fact that she was also in college full-time, having transferred to Sac State’s Psychology program, further complicated both transportation and scheduling issues.

“It was kind of like a series of hills,” she said. “When I’d get turned down again, I’d get discouraged for a few months. It would turn into depression. Eventually, I’d try again. Then another rejection would come, and so would the discouragement.”

In addition to physical barriers, Jasmine knew she was also up against bias. Even during her community college tutoring job, some students, on glancing at her wheelchair, hadn’t wanted to work with her.

By the fall of 2020, nearing completion of her bachelor’s degree, despite having two-plus years’ experience as a tutor, she was feeling especially defeated on the job front.  Then, her DOR counselor mentioned PRIDE Industries.

“One day when I was in my counselor’s office, she told me to look into two companies,” said Jasmine. “One being PRIDE Industries.”

Upon doing some research, Jasmine found that PRIDE Industries and its mission to create employment for people with disabilities stood out. With that, she contacted the social enterprise’s I AM ABLE Helpline.

“The Intake Representative was helpful on the spot,” said Jasmine. “She began researching and sending me links while she was on the phone with me.”

Within two weeks, Jasmine was connected to Employment Specialist Caryl Balko, the two working diligently on honing Jasmine’s resume, searching for and applying to jobs, and performing mock interviews.

Still, responses to Jasmine’s applications were slim.

“That’s when my employment specialist mentioned an internship,” said Jasmine.

In July of 2021, she began a 250-hour paid internship as an assistant to the I AM ABLE Helpline’s manager. The internship spanned six months, completing that December—just five months before Jasmine was to graduate with her bachelor’s degree in psychology.

After graduation, Jasmine stayed in touch with her employment specialist. Then, in the fall of 2022, her tenacity paid off.

A position came up that matched perfectly—not only with her degree but also with her long-held passion to help people overcome challenges. In January 2023, she became an employment specialist for the Ticket to Work program at PRIDE Industries.

“It really is a good fit,” she said. “It lets me use the skills I learned in school, as a tutor, and as an intern with the Helpline.”

Employment Specialist Caryl Balko concurs:

“Since joining our team, Jasmine will join in to help with anything,” said Caryl. “If the receptionist is out sick, she’ll help at the reception desk. When I was having computer issues, she helped me with that. She wants to be involved in as many aspects of PRIDE Industries as she can.”

Jasmine has excelled at her job, and it’s no wonder why. In the role, her superpower of empathy has found full expression. So have other traits she proudly features on her Microsoft Teams background: arranger and maximizer, skilled in adaptability and individualization. The fact that she’s also equipped with a psychology degree is more than icing on the cake. In fact, Jasmine hopes to return to college to obtain her MSW degree, allowing her to continue working to help people overcome barriers.

In the meantime, she’s accomplished two of her goals and is halfway to completing the third. Having purchased a van in 2022, Jasmine has only to equip it with hand controls and take the driving course for all three goals to be met.

Jasmine’s employment journey truly has come full circle.

When asked about her favorite part of her job, she’s quick to answer, “Helping people like me.”

Jasmine Long

“Since joining our team, Jasmine will join in to help with anything...She wants to be involved in as many aspects of PRIDE Industries as she can.”