News Column

Jobs for the Disabled

September 9, 2013
wheelchair

Companies that do business with the federal government are being told to recruit and hire more people with disabilities.

Although labor officials stop short of calling the new rule a quota, there is a magic number: Most federal contractors will soon have to show that they aim to give at least 7 percent of their jobs to workers with some type of disability.

Supporters say the emphasis could help address deep disparities that persist even as advocacy, awareness and technology have created more opportunities for workers with physical and mental disabilities.

Bureau of Labor Statistics reports show that 31.6 percent of working-age people with disabilities were either employed or looking for a job last year, compared with 76.5 percent for people without disabilities.

"The numbers tell the story," said Carol Glazer, the president of the National Organization on Disability. "The unemployment rate for people with disabilities has remained virtually unchanged since we started counting it."

Glazer said efforts to prevent discrimination don't necessarily move the needle. But labor officials say the new rule, which changes a part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, could lead to as many as 585,000 jobs for people with disabilities.

"Businesses just need a little bit more of an incentive," Glazer said, comparing the rule to federal policies that boosted the hiring of women and minorities.

The new rules, which were announced last month and take effect in six months, also include an updated measure for hiring veterans. Contractors are to adopt a benchmark each year that's based on the national percentage of veterans in the workforce (currently 8 percent) or the best available data.

The disability section is more controversial. The HR Policy Association, an organization representing the chief human-resource officers of major U.S. employers, said the rule unfairly mandates a numerical goal and forces employers to ask for disclosure of disabilities.

According to the American Community Survey, an estimated 5.7 percent of U.S. workers have some type of broadly defined disability, while nearly 20 percent of the general population does. Daniel Yager, the president and general counsel of the association, said requiring companies "to invade the privacy of applicants and employees with questions about their physical and mental condition destroys everything companies have done to integrate individuals with disabilities into the workforce in a sensitive, discreet manner."

Employee disclosure of a disability would remain voluntary, labor officials say. But companies -- the rule applies to those that contract with the federal government and have at least 50 employees -- must maintain data on their recruitment, hiring and retention efforts toward the 7 percent goal.

Failure won't trigger fines or penalties, officials said, although contracts could be affected.

Jeffrey Hammonds, the diversity and equal-employment opportunity consultant for Battelle, said the Columbus-based research organization doesn't see the mandate as a hardship.

Battelle has not had "numerical goals" for hiring people with disabilities, but Hammonds said he thinks 7 percent is a realistic target. "It's an untapped market for talent," he said. "Those individuals bring a different perspective."

The Rehabilitation Services Commission of Ohio has a point person to help in hiring.

"We have to make sure we're ready for this," spokesman Brad Reynolds said. "If (a business) needs an accountant, who has an accounting degree? They don't want us to take a month to identify people."

rprice@dispatch.com

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