Q&A with Department of Labor's Kathleen Martinez

By Donna M. Owens Nov 1, 2012

November Cover​Kathleen Martinez, the U.S. Department of Labor’s assistant secretary for disability employment policy, leads the Office of Disability Employment Policy. The office was established in 2001 to develop policies and practices to increase the employment of people with disabilities. Martinez, who has been blind since birth, spoke to HR Magazine about employees with disabilities and return-to-work programs.

Why is it important to focus on return-to-work programs? 

Most people with disabilities can and want to work. They can make enormous contributions to our economic recovery if we make modest accommodations to let them utilize their talent. There is a growing body of evidence proving that workers with disabilities meet or exceed the job performance of those without them. Employers want to hire the best person for the job, regardless of disability status.

The Labor Department has heard from countless employers who want to give job opportunities to persons with disabilities, but they need information about effective strategies to do so. Simple things like workplace flexibility can create work schedules that make room for regular medical appointments, child care issues and other unique employee needs. For example, telework options can help people with mobility disabilities and physical stamina issues and those who are susceptible to airborne illnesses. Workplace flexibility allows individuals with disabilities to keep not only their jobs but also their dignity and worth.

What are the program costs and benefits to employers and employees? 

Returning an employee to work who has acquired a disability saves the company the cost of hiring and training a replacement for the employee. Staff morale is strengthened because co-workers see they work for an employer who appreciates and cares about them as people. And the individual who has acquired a disability can continue to earn a living, provide for their family and not be dependent on government assistance to survive.

Through employer surveys conducted by the Job Accommodation Network, we know that most employers report no or low costs when implementing stay-at-work and back-to-work strategies. More than half of the employers said there was no cost whatsoever to making accommodations, while another 38 percent experienced a one-time cost. Of those changes that did have a cost, the typical one-time expenditure by employers was $500.

What are the barriers to implementing an effective return-to-work program?

Outdated attitudes and misconceptions about the capabilities of persons with disabilities are one of the biggest barriers and often hinder the process the most. Working with people with disabilities is the one thing that removes these barriers and misconceptions faster than anything else. This quickly opens employers’ eyes to all that a person with a disability can accomplish.

I also want to stress that employers should take a proactive approach to this issue. When employers are responsive to current employees’ needs—providing reasonable accommodations, workplace flexibility and access to medical care—employers are less likely to lose employees to disabilities in the first place.

How is the success of a return-to-work program measured?

The answer really depends on whose success you are measuring.

For example, if you are measuring the success of the program for an employer, that could be measured by the return of an employee who has acquired a disability. This counts as success because a staff member is back and accomplishing business goals, and also the employer has demonstrated that a disability need not prevent an employee from working and contributing. If you are the person returning to work, you can measure success by whether or not you had an employer who was willing to accommodate you during your recovery process, who valued your contributions and who understood that providing accommodations for your workplace was a win-win proposition for both of you.

Does your office have any resources that can support employers with return-to-work efforts?

Absolutely! One of the resources we have had a lot of success with is the Job Accommodation Network, or JAN for short. Since 1983, JAN has been the leading source of national, free, expert and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues, including the employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. Working toward practical solutions that benefit both the employer and employee, JAN helps people with disabilities enhance their employability and shows employers how to capitalize on the value and talent that people with disabilities add to the workplace. JAN serves 30,000 to 40,000 people per year. One-on-one guidance is available to both employees and employers through JAN’s toll-free phone line at 800-526-7234 or through its website at www.askjan.org.

We also developed a return-to-work toolkit for employees and employers to help them understand the return-to-work process and provide resources to assist in getting employees back on the job quickly and smoothly. That toolkit can be found on ODEP’s website at www.dol.gov/odep/return-to-work.

What is your office doing to improve return-to-work outcomes in the federal government? 

Return to work is a critical aspect of President Obama’s July 2010 Executive Order on Increasing Federal Employment of Individuals with Disabilities, under which the federal government is expected to hire an additional 100,000 individuals with disabilities by July 2015. The executive order specifically calls for agencies to expand successful return-to-work outcomes for those of their employees who sustain work-related injuries or illnesses, as defined under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA). This includes increasing the availability of job accommodations and light- or limited-duty jobs and removing disincentives for FECA claimants to return to work.

The Office of Disability Employment Policy and the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs are currently working together on a research effort to document barriers and identify strategies that federal agencies may use to increase the successful return to work of employees who have sustained disabilities as a result of workplace injuries or illnesses. By strengthening return-to-work policies and implementing similar types of initiatives, private-sector employers will not only reap reduced [workers’]compensation costs, but in addition will benefit from keeping trained and experienced personnel on board.

The interviewer is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.


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