Governor’s Employer Awards Program

Recognizes and promotes the achievements of employers, organizations and individuals who have improved employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

The program celebrated it's 28th anniversary in 2020 with a virtual ceremony that can be viewed here. You can also read the announcement about recipients. This year's recipients will be recognized at a virtual ceremony in the fall, held on Tuesday October 26, from 11am-1pm. 

Each year, nominations begin in May and run through the end of August. Categories include Small, Medium, and Large Private, Non-Profit, Public, and Youth Employers of the Year. The Direct Support Professional Award is a lifetime achievement award also presented to an individual within the field of supported employment. The Governor's Trophy is another lifetime achievement award presented to an individual with a disability. Finally, the Toby Olson Legacy Award is a new lifetime achievement award in its second year of accepting nominations, that recognizes an individual who has made a lifetime commitment to addressing the inequities people with disabilities face in their community and at the state and national levels and can demonstrate specific, direct actions dramatically changing the lives of those in the disability community.

Registerfor the 2021 Governor's Employer Awards 

Use the link below:

Register for the 2021 Governor's Employer Awards ceremony (held virtually via Zoom from 11am-1pm on Tuesday, October 26). 

The 2021 Governor’s Employer Award’s Nomination Process is live!

The GCDE is proud to present the Toby Olson Lifetime Impact Award, honoring an individual who embodies the qualities and characteristics of the late Toby Olson, and has made a lifetime commitment to addressing the inequities those with disabilities face in their community and at the state and national levels and can demonstrate specific, direct actions dramatically changing the lives of those in the disability community!

GCDE is implementing a two-step process for this Award.  The first step is a Letter of Intent prepared by the nominator and an Endorsement Letter prepared by a current, former or emeritus GCDE Member.  GCDE will review the information provided in the first step to determine if the nomination should proceed.  The nominator will be advised by telephone or by email whether the submission will be approved to move forward.  Following approval, the second step requires completion of an official nomination packet and supporting material which will then be reviewed by the Judging Panel.  A link to the official Toby Olson Nomination will be included in the GCDE approval letter.

Use the forms below to complete Step 1 of the process to nominate an individual for the Toby Olson Award:

Letter of Intent (to be submitted by the Nominator)

Letter of Endorsement (to be submitted by a Current, Former, or Emeritus GCDE Member).

These forms should be saved and emailed to Awards Program staff for review at:

Subcommittee Members
  1. Laurie Schindler

  2. Zahid Chaudry

  3. Clarence Eskridge

  4. Daniel Ledgett

  5. Deana Harris

  6. Kevin Frankeberger

  7. Matt Nash

  8. Pat Bauccio

  9. Yvonne Bussler-White

  10. James Carlone

Previous Award Winners


2016 Large Non-Profit Employer of the Year – Battelle/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; 
2016 Medium Non-Profit Employer of the Year – Excelsior Youth Center;
2016 Small Private Employer of the Year – InsideWorks;
2016 Youth Employer Award of the Year – Little Anchor Daycare;
2016 Large Private Employer of the Year – Microsoft;
2016 Local Government Employer of the Year – Snohomish County;
2016 Medium Private Employer of the Year – Sodexo - Walla Walla University Team;
2016 Small Non-Profit Employer of the Year – Washington Access Fund;
2016 State Public Employer of the Year – Washington State Department of Licensing;
2016 Governor's Trophy – Emily Cooper;
2016 Direct Support Professional – Sue Ann Lemkin


2017 Governor's Trophy – Mark Adreon;
2017 Direct Support Professional – Bonnie Sinclair;
2017 Medium Non-Profit Employer of the Year – Bridgeways;
2017 Large Private Employer of the Year – Seattle Mariners;
2017 Medium Private Employer of the Year – Port Angeles Safeway;
2017 Small Private Employer of the Year  Northwest Trophy;
2017 Youth Employer of the Year – Seattle Children's;
2017 Public Employer of the Year  City of Seattle


2018 Governor's Trophy Don Kay – As a Washingtonian living with a disability, Don’s lifetime achievements reflect his leadership within the disability community, statewide and throughout the country. In the 1970s Don helped create a statewide forum for people with disabilities that promoted the emergence of a disability movement focused on civil rights and opportunities to be full citizens of the state. This gave voice to people with disabilities in the adoption of state law, policy and practice and led to groundbreaking developments recognizing people with disabilities as full citizens with rights rather than as medical patients or charity cases. He continues to work tirelessly on behalf of members of the disability community. Don has made a consummate effort to bring about equality within our state despite the many barriers confronted in bringing about profound change.

2018 Direct Support Professional Paula Bouwer –Paula fought hard for her first job as a job developer. She was told that because of her own disability, she wouldn’t be able to meet the requirement for strong communication skills. She didn’t accept the many times she was told “no” and continued to pursue the job until she was successful at getting a 6-month position. This led to her long successful career. For the past 24 years Paula has positively impacted numerous lives by using her job development and networking skills to enable individuals to obtain the job they desire. She has consistently exceeded all agency targets for successful placements, job retention, and revenue and productivity goals. At the same time, Paula maintains high quality standards. She has been recognized by St Martin’s University with the Distinguished Alumni Award. Graduating in 1986 she was the first student with a hearing disability to graduate. Paula enjoys recognizing employers for their best practices and nominates them for recognition which helps to strengthen her employer base. One employer said, “If Paula gives her word that she thinks the person is a good match, then we will accept her word because she’s proven we can.”

2018 Medium Non-Profit Employer of the Year Cascade Public Media – Cascade Public Media (KCTS9) wants every employee to have the opportunity to be successful. When they hired a person with a disability, they welcomed the support of a job coach and assistance from the Department of Services for the Blind. They provide an inclusive environment demonstrated by things like celebrating birthdays and identifying natural supports in the workplace. As needs are identified, they remove the hurdles. This may mean modifying work schedules, providing assistive devices, or looking for specific strengths that can bring new talents to the organization. They relocated equipment to make it easier to use; purchased software to accommodate visual barriers; and purchased ergonomic keyboards. Cascade Media was aware this employee depends on ACCESS for transportation to and from work. As an accommodation they provide plenty of notice for his schedule changes. This employee feels KCTS 9 truly cares about him and the support he needs to be successful. The employee received 2 pay increases over the last 18 months, a $2,000 bonus and the opportunity to move from a part time employment to permanent full-time position.

2018 Large Private Employer of the Year Fred Meyer #122 –Fred Meyer, Store 122 actively recruits for diversity. They work with a number of employment vendors to ensure they have the greatest network possible. They participate in job fairs, resource fairs and maintain relationships to assure they know of opportunities where they can network with the disability community. They are open to Employment Consultants joining the interview process and even invite a family member if they feel it would be in the person’s best interest. Once hired they encourage additional support from job coaches, consultants and work with families to support their employees. Employees have regular evaluations and pay increases. They let the employee decide who they want to join them for their evaluations including a family member. This allows for additional support on the employee’s job responsibilities. Additionally, all employee training includes how best to support their shoppers with disabilities.

2018 Medium Private Employer of the Year Kulshan Brewing Co. –Kulshan Brewing Company’s management understands the importance of making accommodations where necessary and setting the tone for success with clear expectations around work performance. Promoting high expectations conveys respect and a belief in the workers abilities. It also conveys a strong message that their contributions are critical to the success of the business. All employees have annual evaluations along with ongoing feedback. Employees take ownership of their responsibilities and job coaches ensure supported employees have the tools and support to achieve their goals. This growth-oriented mindset lays the groundwork for retention, promotion and expansion of duties and workhours. The Kulshan team actively fosters a workplace culture characterized by mutual support and inclusion. The team routinely recognizes and expresses appreciation for the contributions of the supported employees, setting the tone for equality and mutual respect. Support to workers with disabilities flourishes naturally as a result of the company’s overarching culture celebrating individuality and emphasizing community.

2018 Small Private Employer of the Year Gigglechops Dog Wash – Gigglechops Dog Wash (GDW), is a self-service dog wash in Seattle committed to providing employment opportunities for workers with disabilities. Gigglechops hires employees with special needs and learning differences through word of mouth and other means. 4 out of the 5 employees or 80% have self-identified as having a disability. Employees are paid $15 an hour. Scheduled work hours are flexible based on employee wishes. Employees are encouraged to learn from one another by scheduling them to work at the same time. Training needs are designed utilizing each individual’s strength. As an example, “How To” videos are used for some and others may prefer written guidance and check lists. They seek employee feedback and accommodate based on what they learn. Employees are provided with advancement and leadership opportunities. The employer values social network supports and adjusts work schedules so employees can participate in Toastmaster meetings, comic book conventions and sport activities as examples.

2018 Youth Employer of the Year Educational Service District 123 – The Educational Service District 123 (ESD) began transition services in 2016 with 7 rural schools and have expanded to 30 high schools with Pre-Employment Transition Services in the 2017-2018 school year. Over 800 students participated in monthly group activities. In addition to the monthly trainings, ESD 123 partnered with Career Path Services and Columbia Services to provide high quality work-based learning experiences. Starting in May there were 37 job shadow experiences and 12 paid internships. Some resulted in summer employment at minimum wage. The ESD has coordinated with several local services including the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, and a large list of others. ESD 123 established a local Interagency Transition Network of teachers, parents, Arc of Tri Cities, Developmental Disabilities Administration, as well as several other agencies who meet monthly to improve transition outcomes for students with disabilities. They report the strength of their success is in the building of these relationships within local communities, schools, employers and businesses. These relationships make it possible for students to explore careers, learn strong employment skills and develop hew career goals.

2018 Public Employer of the Year City of Bellevue – The City of Bellevue has demonstrated a strong commitment to expanding and promoting an inclusive workplace for all people. Their Supported Employment Initiative promotes inclusivity within the city departments. It has support from the top, including the City Manager and the Human Resource Director. This kind of commitment from the top levels of leadership is inspiring and ensures participation at all levels of the organization. They established an important collaborative partnership with Puget Sound Personnel, Inc. (PSP) which contributes to the Supported Employment Initiative success. The Supported Employment Task Force continues to build positive momentum encouraging directors and managers to develop job opportunities in their departments. Jobs are customized to match the employer’s business needs along with the individual’s employment goals. These employment opportunities not only dramatically changed the lives of the individuals that they hired, but the ripple effect has positively impacted their team members at work and the community.


2019 Governor's Trophy Duane French – Duane was a gentleman and a rebel. With his engaging smile and charming ways, he listened to people carefully. He tried to get to know each person he met. He wanted to help. He was a vocational rehabilitation counselor working with people with physical injuries and disabilities. He helped people transition from nursing homes to independent living. While his people to people skills and accomplishments were many, his success meant promotions. He became Executive Director of Access Alaska; then Director of Alaska’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, then Director of Policy for Washington’s Employment Assistance Program and eventually Director of Disability Determination Services, a division of the Washington Department of Social & Health Services. But he always was a rebel fighting for people with disabilities. He participated in his share of demonstrations highlighting the very critical need to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. He came face to face with people who just didn’t get it… people who didn’t understand the proposed legislation recognized the civil rights of those with disabilities. It prohibited discrimination and guaranteed that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life. He continued the fighting spirit, managing a division where Washington residents apply for Social Security disability benefits. He was so proud of Division’s staff and consultants, who worked tirelessly to help those who are unable to work navigate the bureaucracy. Duane’s legacy is found in federal and state legislation and in state agencies in Nebraska, Alaska and Washington. But for him, it was the people he served that mattered most. He was a gentle man.

2019 Direct Support Professional Collen Thornburg – Colleen builds success even in challenging situations. She is known for her determination and creativity. Her supervisor regularly receives praise for Colleen’s work. Multiple case managers and counselors specifically request that Colleen work with their customers. An example of her determination - she dealt with an individual who needed very specific requirements for a successful job placement. The job needed to be located near her home, to provide healthcare benefits for part-time work, to have a consistent schedule, and no lifting over 15 pounds or customer service work. As situations become more challenging, Colleen becomes more motivated. As a result of her person-centered focus, she found an impossible dream job and it even paid $1.50 per hour more than the person was currently making. Colleen’s” make it work attitude”, her compassion, and her stellar communication skills make her a natural for this work. Colleen’s creative thinking shapes success, and her determination guarantees her participants are placed in the best opportunity for their skills, interests, and needs. At the conclusion of last year’s awards program, Colleen approached an employer who was a nominee. After a brief conversation, Colleen began a relationship that would eventually provide an opportunity for a participant she had in mind. The most impressive part of this story, and not unusual for Colleen, was that the individual was not even on her caseload.

2019 Small Non-Profit Employer of the Year Bella's Voice – Bella’s Voice participates in community-based assessments; assisting transitional aged youth identify their individual skill sets. They work with volunteers, many who have disabilities. Two volunteers with disabilities who demonstrated their motivation and strong work ethics, and were hired, which is the best possible outcome. One employee needed a quiet location to work; staff designed a workstation away from customer service and public walkways. Other accommodations include flexible work schedules, use of job coaches and allowing more time to learn job tasks. With compassion and acceptance, employees flourish, build confidence and experience success. In addition to being a great place to work, staff receive bonuses and birthday gifts. It is clear that Bella’s Voice understands and values the contributions individuals with disabilities bring to the workplace.

2019 Large Private Employer of the Year Huntwood Industries –Huntwood Industries has incorporated an innovative approach to hiring by breaking down barriers in their hiring process. They have restructured job positions and created part-time employment opportunities. These steps taken by Huntwood have opened a variety of opportunities to people who experience disabilities. Huntwood’s culture has developed into one of inclusiveness and learning. Department managers and supervisors have been open and eager to learn about supported employment and how they can help their employees be successful.

2019 Medium Private Employers of the Year Quality Inn/Welcome Home Oak Harbor – The Quality Inn & Suites at the Olympic National Park is known for their excellent customer service, diversity in the workplace and for their exceptional work environment. With nearly 25% of their workforce experiencing a disability, they are a model of diversity and inclusion. No matter the challenge, management and staff are willing to overcome any obstacle with innovation and a positive attitude. Job descriptions are developed or modified to increase employment opportunities for individuals with differing abilities. Since 2015, the Quality Inn & Suites have expanded their supported employment program from a single staff person to 6 staffers. The hotel utilizes an employee of the month recognition program. In September, an employee who experiences a disability received the award. This is the third time a recipient with a disability was honored. Management also welcomes transition students from the local high school weekly to work on new skills throughout the hotel. This opportunity provides a foundation to develop skills needed to obtain future employment. All employees take pride in their work and are valued members of the team, contributing to the success of the hotel.

Welcome Home Oak Harbor Senior Memory Care is located in Oak Harbor. They actively recruit talent with disabilities from all the employment providers in their areas. Currently, they employ individuals that are supported by three employment providers in Island County. They also work with the Oak Harbor Transition and School to Work programs, offering fantastic learning opportunities for students in high school. Job shadowing and carved positions are used to create custom positions. Management is open to innovation and is willing to try a work around before the idea is dismissed. Training opportunities are provided to help people grow in their positions. Effective training materials are sought out for their employees with disabilities; one size does not always fit the need. Maintaining a happy workforce enables a strong and productive workforce. Welcome Home believes that a contented staff directly relates to the wellbeing and happiness of their residents. Open communication and willingness to make necessary organizational changes influences the success of their workers with disabilities. Welcome Home exhibits the ideal qualities of an inclusive employer and goes above and beyond to drive their team to success. Not only do residents feel like they’ve found a good place to call home but so do their staff.

2019 Small Private Employer of the Year Jerrol's – Jerrol’s is committed to hiring people with a wide range of abilities and empowering them to grow beyond their own expectations. Jerrol’s employees represent a range of disabilities requiring individual and unique accommodations. They have created an inclusive work environment where persons with disabilities employed are simply members of the team. The only retention strategy Jerrol’s employs is to value all team members, give them meaningful job duties and continue to look for ways to increase their responsibilities to build confidence and success. Jerrol’s sponsors many events bringing awareness and acceptance for people on the autism spectrum and all individuals with disabilities. Several team members serve on local boards of disability-related organizations. Jerrol’s provides additional employment opportunities through job carving. The skills of individuals with disabilities are matched to tasks they can accomplish well. Working with job coaches, they analyze what kind of supports are needed to be successful. Job tasks, increased salary and increased hours are added when the employee masters the skills required. Through Jerrol’s newsletters and their social media presence, they consistently increase awareness about disabilities and inclusion. Jerrol’s embraces diversity and believes it is what makes life interesting.

2019 Youth Employer of the Year Swedish Edmonds Hospital – Swedish Hospital Edmonds operates a successful internship program, Project SEARCH, a 9-month training program, to ensure program graduates are prepared for employment within the hospital. Currently in its 4th year of operation, over 20 departments at Swedish Edmonds have hosted more the 28 interns. These departments provide one-on-one mentors for each intern and ensure that youth coming into their departments are exiting prepared to be employed in their communities. During the 3 years of operation, Swedish Edmonds Hospital has hired four graduates, all of whom are working significant hours at well over minimum wage. A key to the program’s success is the welcoming environment. Swedish staff have been very invested in the success of the students and have developed a strong sense of commitment to seeing students develop the skills they need for competitive employment. Beyond Projects SEARCH; they host a robust volunteer program that offers people with disabilities the opportunity to build work skills. They have also been a partner of Work Opportunities for over 30 years, providing space for Work Opportunities customers to work and congregate in their community.

2019 Public Employers of the Year Seattle Army Corps/Employment Security/Kittitas Co. – With over 800 employees, building a diverse and inclusive workforce requires strategic planning and follow-through. The Seattle District Corp of Engineers annually puts together a working group of key essential personnel, management and employees to analyze workplace barriers and to set goals to increase recruitment and retention for underrepresented groups. Last year, over 75 employee requests for reasonable accommodations were approved. In a collaborative effort between the Equal Employment Office, Safety Office and the Ergonomic Assessment Team, a total workforce assessment for current employees with reasonable accommodations were reviewed, to make recommendations for improvements and identify other beneficial modifications to individual workstations. Developing a working partnership with the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation has provided access to qualified workers with disabilities, of which many have been hired. One individual was hired and promoted within 6-months. She was appointed as a Special Emphasis Program Manager and selected to attend advanced training. The agency is also providing travel arrangements for her care provider. Another new hire in the mail room reported that he felt included and welcomed after only working for two weeks. He attended the company picnic and a team sport activity. He has been encouraged to contribute his trivia questions in their employer newsletter. The Equal Opportunity Office and staff exemplify best practices in Disability Inclusion by setting goals to achieve a Model Equal Employment Opportunity Program.

The Washington State Employment Security Department offers centralized funding for reasonable accommodations, removing any financial barrier program managers face when providing employee accommodations. Management coaching is conducted prior to an interactive reasonable accommodation discussion with an employee. This year over 132 reasonable accommodations requests have been addressed. Employment Security partners with the Department of Services for the Blind to co-facilitate the state’s Barrier and Access Solution’s Committee. This group’s goal is to identify and begin removing barriers and drive solutions for universal access to the workforce system. Employment Security is committed to creating greater accessibility for their staff and customers. They upgraded the wireless internet in each WorkSource office so customers can bring their own devices and have access to the same resources as other customers. WorkSource offices actively seek input from disability communities about ways to improve accessibility. Through community input, a WorkSource center was made aware their office layout met ADA standards, but was not disability friendly. Adjustments were made, making the physical access more open and useable by individuals who use mobility devices. Through their actions, policies, and stated value, the Employment Security Department demonstrates the agency’s appreciation for the contributions individuals with disabilities bring to the workforce.

With the backing and guidance from the Kittitas County Board of Commissioners, a supported employment program was developed and continues to grow. The initial job carve positions were set at minimum wage and a single department was selected for the kick-off. Within a short period of time, three more hires were added. Jobs were set for 10 or fewer hours per week with flexible work schedules. Several work accommodations are been utilized to guarantee success, such as working with job coaches to collaborate on training technique and best practices for ensuring work tasks are completed timely. Additional accommodations include assigning a specific point of contact for equipment failures and office supplies, and clarification of work assignments. A picture book was created to guide a worker through her daily activities. A specific daily routine of tasks was developed which improved an employee’s productivity and confidence in their work. In addition, a communication process was developed between a supervisor and the employee, making time management a priority. Computer screens have been enlarged, noise canceling headphones purchased, and special procedure template was created for more detailed tasks. The Board of Commissioners are setting an example of their “can do” attitude to inspire and motivate other county offices to model their program. They recognize the importance of an inclusive workplace and how employing workers with disabilities improves productivity and access to a broader pool of qualified workers.

2019 Toby Olson Legacy Award Toby Olson – When I think about Toby and his life’s work, I am awestruck. He had great courage and foresight to see how Washington State could be the leader in disability inclusion. Full inclusion - not only in the workforce, but in the communities where we live. His remarkable achievements are everywhere. Toby’s strong influence changed state and national laws and appears prominently in agency policy. In his 31 years of state service, he helped to pass approximately 40 laws to expand privileges in the areas of housing, employment, and civil rights. In 2014, for example, he helped strengthen Washington's laws penalizing people who violate disabled parking rules. The law increased fines for misusing a disability parking placard to $450, with $100 going to the Accessible Communities Program. This Program helps fund projects at the local level, allowing communities to be more welcoming and inclusive for persons with disabilities, and to promote and provide equal access to the opportunities available to others. Participation enriches communities, enhances the strength of the diversity of a community, and contributes toward the economic vitality of a community. Toby was a master at grant writing and his success rate was nearly 100%. The Disability Employment Initiative aimed to improve education, training, and employment opportunities for youth and adults with disabilities. Through this grant and the Ticket to Work program, the WorkSource offices in King and Snohomish counties received over $450,000 in ticket revenue, making the program sustainable. The most recent grant was the RETAIN grant, Retaining Employment and Talent After Injury/Illness Network. The goal of these demonstration projects is to help Americans who are injured or ill remain in or return to the workforce, through early coordination of health care and employment-related supports and services. Washington was one of eight states to receive the grant. Toby touched the lives of numerous people with his encouragement and his tender soulfulness. No issue was too small or too big to address. He always found time and resources for those in need. As a change agent, his achievements continue to provide equality and opportunity to the disability community, here and across our nation. Toby Olson passed away on Sunday, Dec. 16.