Dear ABILITY readers,
In the 23 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law, we have seen significant progress in increasing the accessibility of the built environment in the United States, as well as in improving access in our telecommunications, technology and transportation infrastructures. More importantly, the ADA has given millions of Americans the opportunity to participate more fully in their communities.
Despite this progress, we still have much work to do. The most critical remaining challenge is to address persistently low employment of Americans with disabilities who want to work, but are unable to find a job commensurate with their skills and interests. Overall, more than two-thirds of working-age adults with disabilities are not part of the labor force.
Our nation needs a more robust commitment to increasing employment opportunities for these individuals, which has been a major focus of my work as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. Since 2011, I have been working with the US Chamber of Commerce, disability advocates and the business community to prioritize this issue. Our shared goal is to increase the employment by a million people of individuals with disabilities by 2015.
Of course, accomplishing such an ambitious goal requires a multifaceted approach. Recently, the US Department of Labor issued a final rule implementing Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, which significantly boosted our efforts. Section 503 prohibits covered federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating against individuals on the basis of disability. It also sets affirmative action requirements for federal contracts and subcontracts over $10,000 with regard to hiring qualified individuals with disabilities within the US. The new rule is focused on strengthening Section 503’s affirmative action provisions, and it details specific actions that a contractor must take. The highlight of the final rule is that 7 percent of any federal contractors’ workforce must be individuals with disabilities, and that they must take specific steps to ensure this.
For example, the new rule requires the following:
- Contractors may not discriminate on the basis of disability and must take affirmative action to employ and promote qualified individuals with disabilities at all levels, including the executive level;
- Covered federal contracts (and subcontracts) must include an “equal opportunity clause” with specific language on affirmative action and nondiscrimination;
- Every federal government contractor with 50 or more employees and a contract of $50,000 or more must prepare and maintain an affirmative action program that sets forth the contractor’s specific policies and procedures to comply with Section 503, including reasonable accommodation procedures, outreach and recruitment activities, training, data collection analysis, and naming a company official who will be responsible for implementing the program;
- Using the language and manner prescribed by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), the contractor must invite job applicants and current employees to self-identify as having a disability in order to help determine whether the 7 percent hiring goal is being met. The contractor is required to keep all information on self-identification confidential, and may not compel an individual with a disability to self-identify if they do not wish to do so.
The 7 percent hiring goal applies to each job group within the contractor’s workforce, or for the contractor’s entire workforce (if the contractor has 100 or fewer employees). Where the percentage of employees with disabilities falls short of the goal, the contractor is required to develop and execute action-oriented programs designed to correct any identified problems and attain the established goal.
To ensure compliance with this new rule, the OFCCP can conduct compliance evaluations and reviews, and individual job applicants can file a written complaint with OFCCP alleging a violation of Section 503 of this new rule.
This new rule is significant in two ways. The first is the direct impact it will have. Today, federal contractors and subcontractors employ more than 20 percent of the US labor force, and putting this new rule in motion will have a real and tangible effect, opening the doors to good jobs for people with disabilities across the country.
The second impact of this rule may be even more significant: The labor standards and employment opportunities set by the federal government will be a benchmark for all employers and employees, and send a clear, powerful message at the federal level. It also lays the foundation for state and local governments to build on this progress and raise the standards for contractors, as well.
With our economy still recovering, we must strive to eliminate any barriers between
Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) is Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee