COME ON! LET’S PUT PEOPLE TO WORK
Dear ABILITY Magazine Readers,
As a former governor of Nebraska and a current U.S. senator, I have met many of my fellow citizens who have disabilities and who, compared to the typically able population, face staggering unemployment. Despite the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA] of 1990, as well as the advancement of assistive technologies, the playing field is not yet level.
In recent years, thousands of returning veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have found themselves among the disabled as well, and they, too, have been forced into the unemployment line.
We must address this issue immediately.
When Congress passed the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, it authorized the Internal Revenue Service [IRS] to hire private agencies to collect unpaid income taxes. This is how most federal agencies and state governments go about getting outstanding monies owed them. The IRS private collection program, now in its pilot stage, has already brought in nearly $30 million.
For three years, I have been working in Congress to enact a disability preference program for debt collection contracts. This legislation would give preference to third-party debt collectors who employ at least 50 persons with disabilities, and who agree to hire 35 percent of their contract workforce from this untapped talent pool. The goal of the program is to promote the employment of persons with disabilities—including veterans— within the IRS private collection program.
While on several occasions my legislation has passed the Senate unanimously, it has yet to receive the necessary support in the House of Representatives for the president to sign off on it. Unfortunately, some legislators would rather repeal the program than improve it.
The contracts between the IRS and private sector debt collection companies offer a great opportunity for the federal government to stimulate creation of well-paid jobs for those who are disabled. Salaries at third-party debt collection agencies range between $25,000 and $150,000 annually, with most averaging $40,000. These positions include health and 401(k) benefits.
If the federal government initially hired 750 persons with disabilities, it could potentially save up to $344 million over 10 years in Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance benefits. Still, since its inception, many attempts have been made to end this IRS program, but I continue to try to make it work.
Employees assigned to the IRS contract who are hired through the private collection program must pass the same level of scrutiny, including background checks, as IRS employees. They also undergo IRS-approved project training and testing. Therefore, contractor employees are the best available applicants for job opportunities within the IRS when it hires internal collectors to do the work, before or after repeal.
Under the disability preference program, that valuable training, certification and job experience that workers receive could also later lead to gainful employment in the private sector or in other government offices. After the program, workers would be better qualified to perform telephone-collection work and other positions within the collection industry.
Even if the IRS program is repealed at some future date, the disability preference program is still worthy of support. If the IRS contract were to expire or be terminated, veterans and other workers who are disabled could likely retain employment through reassignment to another project within the company.
Finally, use of this employment initiative will show government entities that similar contracting requirements can be used to continue to provide meaningful opportunities for civilians and veterans with disabilities.
By using federal contracting opportunities such as the IRS program, we have the ability to create private sector job opportunities for persons with disabilities, and for returning soldiers disabled while serving our nation.
It is my hope that together we can create a better, more positive future for all persons with disabilities.
Senator Ben Nelson A