Monday, September 12, 2011

Workforce Bill needs to reach higher

With flat job growth in August it’s becoming clear that the current recession is still quite resistant to federal recovery efforts aimed at creating new jobs and new business. The Workforce Investment Act (WIA) is a key tool in recovery to assure that workforce funding is high impact and provides protections for individuals with disabilities who face additional barriers to employment.

As part of a larger workforce bill that sets and funds workforce programs across the U.S., Title V of the Workforce Investment Act 2011 Bill (WIA 2011) attempts to update the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 setting out the rights of individuals with disabilities to services leading to training and work. This bill is huge for individuals with disabilities who face staggering unemployment rates as well as high-school drop-out rates at twice the level of non-disabled individuals. The U.S. Senate Health Education Labor and Pension (HELP) Committee released a discussion draft of the bill recently and we have concerns that the legislation doesn’t go far enough to stop decades-long practices that allow employers and programs to discriminate. Even worse, draft language in Section 511 could make the situation even worse.

Section 511 of Title V of this bill is particularly troubling because it sets out a process for state vocational rehabilitation agencies to eliminate integrated, competitive employment options for certain youth with disabilities. The “checklist” of sorts created by this section is really a guide on how to place youth into sub-minimum wage settings through a determination that they are incapable of achieving mainstream (competitive) employment. The intent of the Rehabilitation Act is to provide opportunities for employment, education and training by removing barriers faced by individuals with disabilities, particularly those with the most severe disabilities. Individuals with severe disabilities are especially vulnerable to discrimination through policies and practices developed over the years, allowing for sub-minimum wages for certain groups of individuals. New York, for instance, continues to offer preferred contracts to “workshops” that allows these employers to pay subminimum wages to disabled employees. Studies are showing that individuals placed in these sheltered environments seldom leave. Without the ability to earn even minimum wage, to work full-time, to have employer-based health insurance or retirement benefits means that individuals placed there are destined to lives of poverty.

Rather than provide a checklist that allows counselors to opt students into sub-minimum wage environments, the legislation should require a minimum duration of vocational rehabilitation services leading to integrated, competitive work. We should raise expectations for youth and presume that each one is capable of working and living in mainstream society. The overarching intent of WIA is to increase the prosperity of workers and employers and to lay the foundation for economic growth of communities and states, and to increase our global competitiveness as a country. The low achievement bar that we’ve set for individuals with disabilities continues to trip up our attempts to realize individual and societal prosperity. If WIA is to keep with our goals to eliminate barriers faced by individuals with disabilities to realize their full potential, it must start by providing youth with the tools they need to go to college, to have meaningful careers, and to create strong families of their own.

State initiatives to limit or eliminate funding to sub-minimum wage employers or segregated day settings include Vermont, Washington, New Hampshire and Tennessee. The impetus for states to move their employment systems away from sheltered settings to community-based competitive approaches is based in existing federal law and directives yet remain the exception in practice (Americans with Disabilities Act , President Bush New Freedom Initiative). To require state vocational rehabilitation agencies to first do everything in their service power to move eligible youth with disabilities to independent living and competitive employment requires strong language. Setting an expectation for failure through the current 511 language negates our ability to set the high bar.

Because of the strong focus now on deficit reduction, the WIA 2011 mark-up has been postponed with no new date yet set for review. It’s time to let HELP Committee members know that we do not accept the section 511 language as it stands.

What we do require is the provision of employment and education services that allow youth with disabilities to move to integrated lives, not lives of poverty and certain isolation. Democratic Senators on the HELP Committee are Tom Harkin and Patty Murray who can be reached at and respectively. HELP Committee Republican Senators Mike Enzi and Johnny Isaakson can be reached at and respectively.

To read more about the WIA 2011 draft legislation visit

- Donna