SHRM Members Testify on Keeping People with Disabilities in the Workforce

By Kathy Gurchiek March 23, 2012
Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) members Karen A. Amato and Christine V. Walters appeared before a U.S. Senate committee hearing March 22, 2012, to share ideas and best practices from the private sector on helping people with disabilities remain on the job or return to the workforce.

It was the latest in a series of hearings the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions convened in Washington, D.C., since March 2011 to explore issues affecting the employment of people with disabilities in America.

Even as the unemployment rate for the general public has decreased by a full percentage point from February 2011 to February 2012, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities has risen from 15.4 percent to 15.8 percent during that same period, said committee chair Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

“Moreover, the number of Americans with disabilities participating in the labor force has gone down by more than 500,000 workers since the recession began in 2008,” Harkin said.

Amato and Walters were among a five-member panel of experts appearing before committee to address:

  • How employers can encourage persons with disabilities to remain on the job or return to work.
  • Strategies that can ease a person’s transition back into the workforce after the onset of a disability.
  • Support that employers can provide to persons with disabilities.
  • Strategies that employees with disabilities can use to maintain the quality of their work.

Amato, CCM, CPDM, and a registered nurse of 36 years, is director of the integrated disability management, wellness and safety programs for SRA International Inc. in Fairfax, Va.

Walters, M.A., J.D., SPHR, has 25 years of HR experience. She is sole proprietor of FiveL Co. in Westminster, Md., and author of From Hello to Goodbye: Proactive Tips for Maintaining Positive Employee Relations (SHRM, 2011).

Also appearing before the committee were Eric Buehlmann, J.D., of Arlington, Va.; Kenneth Mitchell, Ph.D., managing partner for WorkRx Group Ltd. in Worthington, Ohio; and Thomas R. Watjen, MBA, president and CEO of Unum Group, Chattanooga, Tenn.

Amato and Walters spoke about the value of flexibility in the workplace. Walters pointed to the SHRM and Families and Work Institute’s national When Work Works initiative that addresses workplace flexibility and to the Sloan workplace flexibility awards that showcase proactive employer practices, including providing opportunities for those with a disability to stay on the job or return to work.

Walters spoke of relationships that SHRM chapters are forming with state and local chambers to educate employers on best practices and lessons learned, and she referenced SHRM’s close alliance with the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. She noted that some veterans will return home with disabilities, and Amato pointed to employer use of the Wounded Warrior programs.

Amato stressed the importance of employers talking with the employee early in the return-to-work process. She described strategies such as establishing an on-site case management or return-to-work coordinator and being creative in making accommodations. The cost of accommodations can be minimal, such as providing a specialized keyboard, allowing the worker to sit instead of stand to perform a task, and providing flexibility in the worker’s schedule for doctor appointments.

“There is not a simple one-size-fits-all solution for every employer of every size and in every industry,” Amato said. “But in the end, proactive employer interventions and prevention efforts can help employees return to work or stay at work, and that improves the bottom line for both employers and families.”

Mitchell of WorkRx Group, noted that all too often the employer’s focus is on when the employee with a disability will return to work instead of how that person will return to work.

“Come up with a plan,” he advised employers. “You have safety programs, you have fire drills.” Likewise, the employer should consider scenarios for handling the work should an employee develop a disability, he said. This allows for moving “very timely and very smoothly into providing a reasonable accommodation.”

However, Harkin was looking for guidance from panel members as to the federal government’s role in addressing the underemployment and unemployment of people with disabilities. He cited a Social Security Administration estimate that one in four of today’s 20-year-olds will develop a disability before they retire.

“We cannot afford to lose that amount of workforce and all of the knowledge, experience and expertise those workers represent,” he said.

Walters urged the government to offer incentives to small employers to recruit, hire, retain, train and promote persons with disabilities. By focusing on rewards—tax incentives, safe harbors, recognition programs—they can enhance employment opportunities for everyone, including people with a disability, she said.

Harkin was especially keen on Walters’ suggestion that the government create some type of relief or safe harbor for employers who create return-to-work or stay-at-work policies. Fear of violating a myriad of laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act and workers’ compensation laws often makes employers hesitant to create such policies, she said.

Part of the 90-minute discussion focused on employer-provided disability insurance, which generally replaces about 60 percent of a person’s income when illness or injury prevents the employee from working.

The majority of such insurance is an employer-provided benefit, with the employer paying the premiums or sharing the cost with the employee, according to Watjen. Educating consumers about the importance of such coverage is important, he said, but his industry needs to find ways to simplify the product and make it more affordable.

In a prepared statement, he said government can play an important role by raising consumer awareness about the risks and consequences of disabilities. A worker is three times more likely to become disabled than to die before retirement, he said, and studies show that disabilities can cost employers up to 15 percent of payroll.

Kathy Gurchiek is as​sociate editor for HR News.

Related Article:

Work-Focused Psychotherapy Helps Employees Return Sooner, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, March 2012


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