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Senate Committee Examines Disability Employment
 

By Roy Maurer  8/7/2012

Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), released a report July 16, 2012, on the state of disability employment in the U.S., in time to coincide with the 22nd anniversary of the signing of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The report acknowledged the advancements in accessibility for people with disabilities since that historic signing, but exhibited concern for the lack of disability employment. Harkin revealed optimism for recent public- and private-sector developments that aim to increase labor force participation for this population and called on Congress, the business community and society at large to elevate this issue to a national priority.

Harkin, the principal sponsor of the ADA, published Unfinished Business: Making Employment of People with Disabilities a National Priority, based on a series of HELP committee hearings (held March 2011-June 2012) that examined various causes for low workforce participation by people with disabilities. The report outlined a number of strategies and tactics that will lead to the goal of competitive, “integrated employment”—in which those with disabilities work alongside those without under the same terms and conditions of employment.

“At this time we are seeing a convergence of strong bipartisan leadership from the public and private sectors with the coming of age of a new generation of young adults with disabilities who have high expectations for themselves and have the education and skills to succeed in the modern workplace,” Harkin wrote in the report. “If we make this issue the priority that it deserves to be, in the next few years we will see a real change in employment outcomes for Americans with disabilities.”

Thus, Harkin announced plans to introduce legislation with bipartisan support that will:

  • Help young people with disabilities transition successfully from high school to higher education and to competitive, integrated employment that can lead to quality careers and economic security.
  • Help disability-owned businesses compete effectively for contracts within all levels of government and the private sector.
  • Create incentives for states to develop and test new models of providing income support, rewarding work and long-term services that will better enable people with disabilities to live in the community, work and earn to their full potential, as well as help individuals remain employed after the onset of a disability.
  • Encourage savings and asset development for people with disabilities so they can become economically secure and join the middle class.

Along with the legislative initiatives, Harkin said he will continue to engage leaders in the business community and encourage them to “get more serious about recruiting, retaining and promoting employees with disabilities.” In addition, he said he will seek to remove or address any policy or practical barriers that have hindered employer-led disability employment initiatives.

“Our country showed bold bipartisan leadership in 1990 when it passed the ADA and America is a better place because of its implementation,” he wrote. “It is now time again to show the same kind of leadership and open wide the doors to better jobs and careers as well as create an accessible pathway out of deep poverty and into the mainstream of the American middle class for the more than 20 million working-age American adults with disabilities.”

Federal-Sector Disability Employment Goals

In the report, Harkin highlighted public- and private-sector initiatives and methods for addressing the persistently low participation rate of people with disabilities in the workforce.

Between fiscal years (FY) 2000 and 2009, the number of federal workers with targeted disabilities decreased by more than 9 percent even though the federal workforce as a whole increased 15 percent over the same time period.

During the recession, the situation only got worse. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the portion of the workforce with disabilities shrank by over 10 percent between July 2008 and December 2010, five times faster than the nondisabled workforce, which shrank by about 2 percent.

Yet some changes are in progress.

Harkin noted that President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13548, which was issued in July 2010, established a goal of hiring 100,000 people with disabilities into the federal workforce by 2015.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced that in FY 2011, federal employees with disabilities represented 7.41 percent of the overall federal workforce (11 percent when the figures included veterans who are 30 percent or more disabled). However, the same report found that people with disabilities represented 7.96 percent of all new hires in FY 2011 and 14.7 percent of all new hires when veterans with disabilities are included—the highest percentage in 20 years.

In total, more than 200,000 people with disabilities now work for the federal government, also the most in 20 years, according to OPM.

“Increasing opportunities for employment participation takes many forms, starting with the federal government modeling for the nation how to recruit, retain and promote qualified workers with disabilities,” Harkin wrote.

Over 3,000 federal employees from more than 56 agencies have been trained on recruiting techniques, and representatives from all cabinet-level agencies have attended trainings hosted by OPM, the agency reported.

In the HELP report Harkin voiced support for the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) proposed regulations implementing Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act that would, if adopted, clarify the obligations of federal contractors to support disability employment efforts. The proposed regulations call for recruitment strategies that would increase the pool of qualified candidates with disabilities, establish a goal that individuals with a disability should make up 7 percent of a contractor’s workforce, and propose a possible sub-goal of having 2 percent of workers with a significant disability.

The proposed regulations encourage contractors to invest in assistive technology and to establish reasonable accommodation strategies that will enhance their ability to support employees with disabilities.

“The issuance of the proposed new regulation has the potential to spur federal contractors, who employ over 20 percent of the U.S. workforce, to expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities,” Harkin wrote.

Harkin’s report came a day after Delaware Gov. Jack Markell announced that he will make expanding employment for Americans with disabilities the defining initiative of his new National Governors Association chairmanship.

Markell’s plan, A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities, aims to increase employment among individuals with disabilities—especially individuals with intellectual and other significant disabilities—by focusing on appropriate training, job placement and work-based support, and by advancing best practices and meaningful engagement of the business community.

Private-Sector Initiatives Demonstrate Benefits of Disability Employment

Harkin noted that the private sector plays a critical role in the effort to increase the participation rate of people with disabilities in the workforce and that many businesses have already made efforts to do so with great success.

“Companies including Walgreens, Lowe’s and Best Buy did not wait for the government’s  initiative and were already setting ambitious goals for disability employment, praising the business benefits that have come from their focused emphasis on recruiting, retaining and promoting this talent pool,” Harkin wrote.

Walgreens, the largest U.S. drugstore chain, with more than 7,000 stores nationwide, developed a plan to recruit a diverse workforce made up of at least 20 percent workers with disabilities in two of its distribution centers. At its Windsor, Conn., site, which has more than 400 employees, over half of employees have a disability, including individuals with seizure disorders, autism, hearing or visual impairments, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, and mental health issues. Because the results have been so positive, Walgreens has decided to expand its disability hiring goals to the corporate headquarters and each of their retail stores.

Without specifying a particular timeline, Walgreens aspires to have 10 percent of its workforce—from distribution centers to corporate headquarters to retail outlets—to be made up of people with disabilities.

Roy Maurer is a staff writer for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Employers Lauded for Disability Employment Strategies, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, May 2012

Experts: Adjust Practices to Facilitate Disability Employment, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, May 2012

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