Federal Mandate to Find Better Jobs for Workers with Disabilities Faces Obstacles

Moving into conventional workplaces won’t be easy

By Dana Wilkie Jan 28, 2015
Finding jobs for people with disabilities that allow them to work alongside those without disabilities may be a priority for a ne​w Department of Labor (DOL) advisory committee, but it isn’t always easy, according to those who testified at the committee’s first hearing in January 2015.

Resistance from employers, the parents of those with disabilities, and even the people who have disabilities themselves can often be an obstacle.

Speakers at the Jan. 22-23 hearing of the Advisory Committee on Increasing Competitive Integrated Employment for Individuals with Disabilities—created by President Barack Obama under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)—extolled the virtues of moving people with disabilities from so-called “sheltered” work programs, where they work only with others with disabilities, to integrated workplaces. Some rolled out statistics showing that the wages of workers with disabilities in conventional settings have grown steadily over the years, while pay for those in sheltered settings has remained virtually stagnant. Others told stories of people with disabilities who blossomed after moving from sheltered to conventional workplaces.

Yet the realities of moving those with disabilities into integrated workplaces can be harsh.

For one thing, some employers remain wary of hiring workers who have disabilities, said Bruce Phipps, CEO of Goodwill in Roanoke, Va.

"You will find in some smaller communities that the era of accommodation is still not fully embraced and as such, jobs are not available for those that have the most significant disabilities," he said. "We find that some people and some businesses are resistant to progress and change somes more slowly."

For another, some parents of those with disabilities worry that their children may be mistreated or made fun of in a traditional work setting, he said.

And thirdly, people with disabilities who’ve forged friendships at—and grown comfortable in—a sheltered workplace can find the transition to a conventional work environment jarring and upsetting.

Sheila Foran and Regina Kline, attorneys with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, told the committee that sheltered workplaces can amount to institutional placement that perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that people with disabilities are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life.

Rob Cimera, associate professor in special education at Kent State University, told the committee that from the 1980s to 2009, the unadjusted wage for people with disabilities working in integrated settings went from $3.15 an hour to $7.15 an hour, while the wage for those in sheltered settings only rose from $1.17 an hour to $1.36 an hour.

The 17-member advisory committee will have two years to gather recommendations to submit to the DOL for increasing employment opportunities for people with intellectual, developmental or other significant disabilities. Among its charges is to find ways to improve oversight of a federal certification program that allows employers to pay subminimum wages to people with disabilities if their disabilities impair their productivity. Employers need to obtain a DOL certificate before being allowed to pay subminimum wages.

In September 2012, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ordered Henry’s Turkey Service to pay $1.3 million to disabled workers whom the company paid “severely substandard wages.” The West Liberty, Iowa-based company had abused the certificate program by paying each worker $65 a month, which was substantially lower than the $11-$12 an hour that nondisabled workers earned. The company was able to exploit the workers “because their intellectual impairments made them vulnerable and unaware of the extent to which their legal rights were being violated,” the commission said in a press release.

“There are numerous examples of organizations that use the certificate inappropriately and therefore people are harmed,” said John Kelly, vice president of public affairs at SourceAmerica, in a telephone interview. “Anyone who willfully uses certificates to exploit people needs to be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law, and dealt with harshly.”

SourceAmerica creates job opportunities for people with significant disabilities. Kelly also testified before the committee.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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