Not long ago, Deb Ruh, chairman of the board of the Virginia chapter of the United States Business Leadership Network (USBLN), was having a conversation with some employers in that state about hiring people with disabilities. When the topic of tax credits available for hiring such workers came up, there was confusion.
“These business people knew tax credits existed but said they didn’t always know what they were or that they didn’t have time to hunt them down through the various sources,” said Ruh, who is CEO of TecAccess, an accessibility and risk management consulting firm, as well as chief marketing officer of the SSB Bart Group.
That situation might be changing with the release of an online resource called Hire Gauge from Think Beyond the Label, a public-private partnership that works to increase employment for people with disabilities. Hire Gauge, launched in September 2011, calculates the tangible monetary incentives that can accumulate each time an organization hires someone with a disability, largely by aggregating and detailing the available federal and state tax credits for doing so.
The tool is an outgrowth of focus groups held with business leaders by Think Beyond the Label about factors that could encourage them to hire more people with disabilities.
'So Much Information'
“The biggest thing we heard was there was so much information out there; people just wished it was all in one place,” said Barbara Otto, CEO of Health & Disability Advocates, a Chicago-based policy and advocacy organization that operates Think Beyond the Label. “They said they didn’t want to have to go to 10 different websites to find information on tax credits or other financial rationale for hiring people with disabilities.”
Hire Gauge compiles and explains eligibility for tax credits, including the $2,400 Federal Work Opportunities Tax Credit; the $5,000 Disabled Access Credit for businesses with fewer than 30 employees or under $1 million in annual revenues; the $15,000 Architectural Barrier Removal Tax Deduction to cover expenses incurred to remove physical, structural or transportation barriers; deductions for hiring veterans with service-connected disabilities; and more. Otto said a business that qualifies for the full amount of all available deductions could save up to $31,800 per hire.
While some tax credits like the Disability Worker deduction are well known, others tend to fly under the radar, Otto said. She said she believes that the online tool will give the other tax breaks more exposure. In addition, Hire Gauge provides information about various state tax credits available for hiring those with disabilities and includes direct links to tax forms related to federal and state credits.
Otto said Hire Gauge is designed as a content aggregator and facilitator of knowledge, not as the final word on tax credit eligibility or financial ROI of disability-related hiring. She said one small-business owner who has used Hire Gauge compared it in function to Vehix.com, a website that consolidates car buying information.
“If we can be a clearinghouse that connects businesses to resources they need on a national level, and that points people to the appropriate places and in-depth information at their local level to make more of these hires, we’ll feel like we have provided a valuable service,” Otto said.
Industry consultants and HR leaders say the chief advantage of Hire Gauge is that it raises awareness about the financial benefits of hiring those with disabilities and serves as a one-stop shop for disability-related tax credit information.
“What makes the tool unique is it takes bits and pieces of information you wouldn’t otherwise find in one place and consolidates it,” said Nadine Vogel, CEO of Springboard Consulting, a firm in Mendham, N.J., that consults with organizations on issues around employees with disabilities. “There is a lot of information out on the Internet and elsewhere about the benefits of hiring people with disabilities, but it is fragmented. The fact that Hire Gauge pulls it all together is useful.”
Vogel, who consults primarily with multinational organizations, said there remains a lack of knowledge about tax incentives available for hiring those with disabilities. “I find people, even many in human resources, don’t always understand what the credits are for, how you apply [or] the dollar value of the credits, or if they do know these things it’s only on a surface level,” she said.
Lois Cooper, vice president of corporate social responsibility and inclusion at the Adecco Group, a provider of temporary staffing and other HR services, said Hire Gauge should have value to HR and disability leaders on a number of levels. Among them is raising more awareness about the value of hiring veterans because of skill sets they bring to the workplace and tax credits for hiring them.
“And if you have to go to five or 10 different sources to get this information, you’re just not going to go to any of them,” Cooper said. “Pulling it all together in an at-your-fingertips location is helpful.”
Otto said Hire Gauge might prove valuable in 2012, when the federal government is expected to issue guidelines that update compliance for federal contractors regarding including people with disabilities in diversity hiring practices.
“Given that more than 20 percent of the U.S. workforce works under some type of funding source tied to a federal contract, we think contractors will benefit from easier access to information about the benefits of hiring those with disabilities,” Otto said.
Getting the Word Out
As with other such online tools, the ultimate impact of Hire Gauge will depend on getting the right people to view it and embrace its benefits, disability experts say.
“There are a lot of tools in the disability and diversity market for a lot of purposes, and the mind-set often is, ‘if you build it, they will come,’ ” Vogel said. “But their impact often has more to do with how the information is delivered and who it is delivered to—the push-out of the message. There is that nagging question of, ‘if only the right people knew about this information, things might start to change.’ ”
Many businesses that hire people with disabilities do so for reasons other than accumulating tax credits or meeting quotas. Employees with disabilities can bring unique experiences and perspectives to the workplace and often prove highly productive, innovative and loyal. But for organizations seeking an additional financial rationale for such hiring, Hire Gauge’s ROI feature can solidify the business case.
“I have two companies that employ people with disabilities, and in all my years in business I have never taken a tax credit for them,” said Ruh. “We hire people with disabilities because of their ability to do the job well, but we also now know there’s no reason to leave money on the table. We can’t hire or assign someone to figure out all the tax credit options. For that reason I think Hire Gauge is very much needed by employers, both small and large.”
Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.