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Federal Agencies Face Disability Employment Challenge
 

By Bill Leonard  3/8/2011
 

President Barack Obama’s executive order requiring federal agencies to boost hiring and retention of disabled workers, signed in July 2010, might include some very specific requirements, but agencies should have little or no problem complying with the order, according to sources familiar with the issue.

Specifically, the order required all federal agencies to submit a hiring plan to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) by March 8, 2011, and to increase the number of disabled workers employed by the federal government by 100,000 over five years.

An OPM memo, dated March 4, 2011, granted agencies a "one-time extension" to comply with the order. The revised deadline: April 11, 2011.

“Implementing this executive order is something that is not brand new to the federal government,” said John Palguta, vice president of policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Partnership for Public Service (PPS). “Hiring people with disabilities is something that is fairly well ingrained in most federal agencies.”

Obama’s executive order is similar to one signed by President Bill Clinton in July 2000. Clinton’s order set the same goal—to increase the number of disabled workers by 100,000— however, little effort was made to enforce the requirement after Clinton left office, and the ambitious goal was never met.

Now vs. Then

Obama’s order includes some notable differences from Clinton’s, such as specific hiring and performance goals and a provision that requires federal agencies to “designate a senior-level agency official to be accountable for enhancing employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities.” Accountability for meeting the hiring goals might be the key to ensuring that the hiring goals set by the White House are met, Palguta said.

“Agencies will also be required to submit reports to both the OPM and the Office of Management and Budget on their progress. So this will be an executive order that agencies will take seriously,” said Palguta, who worked for the OPM for more than 25 years before joining the PPS in 2001.

The executive order will require federal agencies to increase the employment of people with “targeted disabilities.” Although the order does not define the term, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report released in January 2008 noted that targeted disabilities include deafness, blindness, missing extremities, partial or complete paralysis, convulsive disorders, mental retardation, mental illness and distortion of limb and/or spine.

The hiring requirements differ widely from agency to agency and depend largely on job duties and the levels of physical activities needed to perform the job.

“Agencies that operate largely in office environments, like the IRS or Social Security, will have much different job duties and requirements than, say, agencies like the U.S. Border Patrol and the TSA [Transportation Safety Administration],” said Kathleen Martinez, assistant secretary for the Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). “Agencies are working hard to be prepared and comply with the executive order, and I believe that the level of commitment to meet the goals of the order is very high throughout all levels of the government, including the White House.”

According to Martinez, Obama’s commitment to achieving the goals of the executive order will help. The president’s commitment is something that private-sector employers should note and learn from, she told SHRM Online.

“If top leaders don’t ‘walk the talk’ and completely support a diversity effort like this, then it’s probably doomed to failure,” said Martinez, who has been blind since birth. “I know from my meetings and conversations with the president that he is fully and enthusiastically committed to making this work and to increasing the number of people with disabilities employed by the federal government.”

As the deadline for compliance approached, the number of federal agencies seeking help and guidance from ODEP increased steadily. ODEP developed hiring guidelines and model policies and made available links to resources for employers in the public and private sectors.

The agency has partnered with and helped to fund online resources such as the Employer Assistance and Resource Network (EARN) and the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). Still, the demand from federal agencies for the expertise of ODEP’s staff hasn’t been overwhelming, and for that, Martinez credits the strong hiring policies and diversity initiatives already in place at many federal agencies.

Employment Figures

Statistics show that the proportion of people with disabilities employed by the federal government is more than double that of the private sector. According to the latest data from OPM and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), approximately 9 percent of federal workers are identified as having a disability, while slightly less than 3.5 percent of workers employed in the private sector are disabled.

Unemployment statistics released by BLS for February 2011, indicate a disparity between workers with and without disabilities. Although the U.S. unemployment rate dipped to 8.9 percent for the workforce as a whole, the unemployment rate reported for people with disabilities stood at 15.4 percent.

The employment gap is even larger. According to the BLS report, just over 20 percent of people with disabilities are employed, compared to nearly 70 percent of people without disabilities.

Moving Forward

“For any diversity plan to truly work, you have to engage all workers. Workers with disabilities in both the public and private sector have demonstrated that they have the skills and work ethic that employers today both want and need to succeed,” Martinez said. “Yet, people with disabilities are underrepresented in the workforce.”

The key to attaining the initiative’s goals, Martinez said, is to raise awareness and change the attitudes among employers. Obama’s executive order can do both, she said, and will demonstrate that people with disabilities can get the job done.

“I believe that it hinges on perspective and attitude. We all like to stay in our comfort zones, and managers are no different. They will hire the people with whom they feel the most comfortable.”

By raising awareness and changing attitudes of managers in the federal government, Martinez said, significant changes will be made in the way people with disabilities are recruited and hired in the private and public sectors.

“Much of the concern about hiring people with disabilities centers on the idea and perceptions of providing accommodations to employees,” she said. “I think employers in both the public and private sector need to understand better that accommodations are nothing more than giving people the tools that they need to do their jobs.”

According to Martinez, any tool or support that employers offer to employees to do their work can and should be considered an accommodation. Phones, computers, chairs, desks and even electricity are really work accommodations, she said.

“It’s about the tools that employees need to do their job as best they can,” she said. “I believe that the president’s executive order will help change these perceptions and provide people with disabilities better opportunities to work and contribute in both the public and private sector, and that’s a very worthwhile and achievable goal.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Workers with Disabilities Face Steep Occupational Obstacles, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, December 2010

Disability Employment Agencies Yield Mixed Results, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, December 2010

GAO Shares Ideas to Increase Disability Employment, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, September 2010

Quick Link: SHRM’s Disability Employment Resource Page

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