Low Unemployment Rates Create New Opportunities for Disabled Workers

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With US unemployment rates staying under 4.5 percent for more than a year, many employers have been struggling to find qualified workers for the more than six million open jobs in the labor market. As such, recruiters and hiring managers are now paying closer attention to untapped labor pools, including the two-thirds of disabled Americans whom the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports are out of work.

Disabled workers often face bias — conscious and unconscious — when seeking employment. Recruiters and hiring managers, whether they realize it or not, are often unwilling to make reasonable adjustments to workflow or conditions to accommodate a worker with a disability. However, these types of concerns are falling away in the face of unfilled positions.

To learn more about current employment trends for workers with disabilities, we spoke with Dr. John O’Neill, director of disability and employment research for the Kessler Foundation.

Recruiter.com:To clarify for our readers, what constitutes a disabled worker?

John O’Neil: “Disability” is as an umbrella term for a wide array of impairments, activity limitations, or participation restrictions. Dimensions of disability or conceptual components of disability are generally measured by a set of indicators relating to equalization of opportunities. A worker with a disability may experience one or more of the following indicators: Difficulty seeing, even if wearing glasses; difficulty hearing, even if using a hearing aid; difficulty walking or climbing steps; difficulty remembering, concentrating, or making decisions; difficulty with self-care such as bathing or dressing; difficulty communicating using one’s customary language; difficulty performing errands alone.

RC: The numbers from the BLS and other sources suggest that hiring managers and recruiters may be engaging with the disabled community more than they would have before the national unemployment rate took a turn for the better. For what should recruiters/hiring managers be advocating within their own organizations to make their workplaces more viable options for disabled workers?

JO: Findings from the “2017 Kessler Foundation National Employment and Disability Survey: Supervisor Perspectives”  suggest specific practices that supervisors find effective for improving their organization’s ability to employ or accommodate people with disabilities. However, many of these practices are being underutilized by employers.

Some of these practices are both widespread and effective. For example, organizations may use job shadowing and on-site training by supervisors, coworkers, or outside temporary job coaches as ways to help new employees with and without disabilities learn their jobs. Partnering with a disability organization can also be an overwhelmingly effective practice for meeting recruitment needs.

Other practices organizations can implement to make themselves a more viable option for employees with disabilities include job sharing, flexible working arrangements, establishing standard disability recruitment and hiring processes, and having an accommodation process in place, including a centralized accommodation fund.

RC: What are some benefits of hiring people with disabilities? Are there any factors that hiring managers and recruiters may not have considered?

JO: People with disabilities are a multi-skilled workforce resource for employers. An inclusive workplace promotes diversity, can improve corporate culture and morale, expands the tax base, and creates an expanded pool of qualified candidates for available jobs. Additionally, many studies have shown that people with disabilities have an overall higher job retention rate compared to people without disabilities.

On a macro level, working reduces poverty, shrinks enrollment in entitlement programs, eases demand on state and community-based social service agencies, boosts productivity of markets, and provides workers overall with a sense of achievement. Moreover, hiring people with disability is a sign of corporate social responsibility, which can help build brand loyalty and revenue. Companies such as AT&T, IBM, Prudential, Starbucks, and Microsoft have recognized the value of hiring and promoting people with disabilities.

From a marketing perspective, people with disabilities represent a trillion-dollar market segment, with one in five adults living with a disability in the US. This represents a huge opportunity for companies to boost their bottom lines by offering products and services with appeal to this population.

RC: Let’s talk about misinformation. What are some myths that exist about workers with disabilities, and can you bust them?

JO: Many people believe that people with disabilities do not want to work. The findings of the “2015 Kessler Foundation National Employment and Disability Survey”  demonstrate this myth is false. Nearly 69 percent of those surveyed were “striving to work,” [a condition] defined as “working, actively preparing for employment, searching for jobs, seeking more hours, or overcoming barriers to finding and maintaining employment.”

The survey showed that people with disabilities were overcoming barriers to finding and maintaining employment, including lack of education or training, employers assuming that they cannot do the job, lack of transportation, and family discouragement. This encouraging information suggests that people with disabilities are already making contributions to the workforce and striving to build on their successes.

Another assumption related to employing people with disabilities is that the process is burdensome. Many employers have concerns about integrating employees into their workplaces and the costs associated with accommodations. However, employees with disabilities are generally open to creating solutions that work for both the employer and themselves.

The most common accommodations indicated by respondents to the 2015 Kessler survey were flexible schedules, modified job duties, and addressing building accessibility. Furthermore, according to the US Department of Labor Job Accommodation Network, most accommodations cost less than $500. In half the cases, no cost was necessary to accommodate the employee’s needs [through initiatives] such as flexible scheduling and telecommuting. Additionally, for every dollar spent making an accommodation, it is estimated that companies earn an average return of $28.69. Accommodations benefit employees with disabilities and can have a positive impact on the organization as a whole. Providing these adjustments may improve productivity and reduce worker compensation claims. There are also tax credits for employers that may help reduce or cover the cost of such accommodations.

RC: Politicians at both the state and federal level have been working to increase opportunities for disabled job seekers. Can you give some examples of these programs and/or legislation and tell me how they have impacted the workforce?

JO: Partnerships such as the State Exchange on Employment and Disability (SEED) and Employment First are providing state legislators with the resources they need to develop effective policies for ensuring ongoing progress toward inclusive workforces. Fueling these initiatives is the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). Its mission is to develop and influence policy related to the employment of people with disabilities and to increase the number of employment opportunities for people with disabilities. To achieve this, ODEP has developed targeted policy teams, a research and evaluation team, and a communications and outreach team.

The goal of SEED is to foster a dialogue with state-level intermediary organizations and state policymakers. It focuses on building the capacity of intermediary organizations — such as the Council of State Governments (CSG), the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), National Governors Association, and Women in Government  — to address policy related to the employment of people with disabilities. SEED provides many different resources. It provides technical assistance to states directly. It also works with intermediary organizations to produce policy documents and educational webinars highlighting best practices and state examples designed to assist in the development and dissemination of inclusive policies.

One of SEED’s major outcomes has been the development of a national task force in collaboration with the NCSL and the CSG. This collaboration is referred to as the National Task Force on Workforce Development for People with Disabilities. The goal was to identify key issues impacting the employment of people with disabilities and provide a framework of recommendation for states to then customize. The result of this collaboration was the “Work Matters” report, which includes 13 broad categories of recommendations. Out of these recommendations came the development of state-level, formal mechanisms to try to enhance employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The mechanisms include the development of interagency working groups or task forces, affirmative action plans consisting of data analysis and public reporting on how state agencies are doing things, and fast-track hiring systems.

Other ways that states are trying to enhance employment opportunities are by working with private sector businesses; mandating interview requirements for people with disabilities; and providing incentives, grants, loans, technical assistance, and mentoring for disability-owned businesses to facilitate self-employment and entrepreneurship. In addition to these approaches, many states have provided resources under the state general fund to ensure that there are sufficient benefit counselors around the country, particularly for youth, to educate on work incentives. For youth, the goal is that they view work as the natural approach, rather than a deficit — for example, losing federal aid.

Lastly, several states have developed tax incentive provisions, both tax credits for hiring people with disabilities and tax credits for barrier removal in providing support. These are just a few of the state-level directives under the Employment First approach that are changing the workforce on a national level.

By Jason McDowell