Sen. Tom Harkin — Working For More Jobs

Circa 2011

Dear ABILITY readers,

Since the beginning of the recession, I have heard impassioned pleas for this Congress to focus our attention on the jobs crisis in America. In September, the Census Bureau reported that nearly one in six Americans is living in poverty, a number that has increased each of the last four years. With unemployment stubbornly holding at over 9 percent, and the economy in a fragile state, President Obama is correct that it is time to pass a jobs bill that will create employment opportunities for millions of Americans and help our economy get on track.

That’s why I held the recent US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pension (HELP) roundtable to draw attention to an often-overlooked piece of the employment puzzle—the shockingly low laborforce-participation rates of workers with disabilities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of August, there were more than 15 million adults with disabilities in the US between the ages of 16 and 64. Of this group, less than one third were participating in the labor force, and more than two thirds were not in the labor force at all. Although BLS has only been reporting on disability employment rates in their monthly updates since 2008, it is worth noting that the size of the disability labor force has shrunk by over 600,000 people in the three years for which we have data. That represents a more than 10-percent reduction in three years. During the same period, the size of the workforce for people without disabilities shrunk by less than one percent.

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That means that in the last three years, people with disabilities have been leaving the labor force at a rate more than 10 times the rate of the population that is not disabled. This is unacceptable and we need to take action to change this trend.

As we noted in March, when we held a HELP Committee hearing focused on people with intellectual disabilities, some of the biggest barriers to success in the labor market for people with significant disabilities can be low expectations, discriminatory attitudes, and a failure of imagination. The purpose of this roundtable was to hear from a diverse group of experts about how they would improve our education, workforce development, and human-service programs, so that people with the most significant disabilities who want to work are able to find a place in the labor market and have a career that works for them.

Our panelists provided excellent insight into the world of disability employment. Deb Pumphrey, a constituent of mine from Iowa, and the mother of a 27- year-old son with multiple disabilities, told the story of Tenco Industries, a community-based recycling program that employs people with significant disabilities, including her son. As her son started his job, working just a few hours a week, she described how his behavioral problems declined. He now looks forward to the structure and social interaction that his work provides him.

Michael Pearson, owner of Union Packing, LLC, a small business in Yeardon, PA, noted that his employees with disabilities have been an asset to his company because, as he said, he focuses not on what people can’t do, but on what they can do, which has helped him access a previously untapped pool of talented workers.

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The panelists agreed that with a little imagination and an adjustment in the way society views potential workers with disabilities, we can integrate our labor force. If we provide such workplace accommodations as flexibility, assistance with starting and sustaining a microenterprise, and making job responsibilities tailored to the capacities and interests of the worker, it will benefit not only workers with disabilities, but also those without them. Broadening the spectrum of employment options for people with disabilities will help to ensure that workers are matched with a job that not only suits them, but also offers them the pride and independence they deserve.

Over the last year I have been focusing on how to improve the disability employment situation with meetings, hearings and legislation. As the HELP Committee continues to work on a bipartisan reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act, we have sought to make changes in the Vocational Rehabilitation title of that bill that would strengthen its emphasis on competitive, integrated employment, as well as to prioritize services for young people with disabilities as they enter the workforce. I hope the hearings and roundtables we’ve held will spur new thinking that can inform legislative efforts like the President’s jobs bill and other bills. My goal is to make the policy changes necessary and engage with leaders in the business and disability communities so that the size of the disability workforce will grow from 4.9 million to 6 million by 2015. That goal is shared by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, providing us with a powerful ally in the fight to increase employment for people with disabilities.


Senator Tom Harkin

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