The U.S. Department of Labor has proposed a move it calls necessary for helping more people with disabilities get hired amid a dismal unemployment rate: A new rule that would require federal contractors and subcontractors to set a hiring goal of 7% for the employment of people with disabilities.
The new rule, if passed into law, would strengthen Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that obligates federal contractors and subcontractors to ensure equal employment opportunities for qualified workers with disabilities. Up until now, there has not been a clearly defined rule in place, though companies that do business with the government have to show evidence of taking proactive steps to recruit workers with disabilities.
With four out of five workers with disabilities outside of the labor force, the Labor Dept. recognizes it has some work to do, starting with laws that can be enforced for the some 200,000 businesses that work with the government, totaling around $700 billion annually.
“Taxpayer dollars are given to businesses on the legal promise they would take affirmative action to build workforces,” says Patricia Shiu, director of the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. These dollars “were not to be used to discriminate,” she says.
The 7% goal is, the Labor. Dept. says, “aspirational” in nature, and is intended to start a discussion on what the appropriate number should be, which the agency believes should fall between 4% and 10%. The Dept. of Labor is seeking comments on its proposal until February 7, 2012.
“The real compliance, the real opportunity is created by all the steps that lead to this goal,” Shiu says. That includes actions employers make to post their jobs with disability-friendly job banks, recruit qualified candidates with disabilities at job fairs and events, provide outreach, collect data, keep records and make accommodation requests.
With one-quarter of American workers employed by the federal government in contracting occupations, the rule is intended to “have a ripple effect the entire labor force,” Shiu says. That’s a tall order, as hiring for compliance isn’t the same as hiring a person with a disability based on their abilities and skills alone. Private employers are not obligated to hire disabled workers, which leaves room for discrimination and contributes to the higher unemployment rate among this group.
The good news is that there are thousands of companies that provide goods and services to the government and would be impacted, and be called upon to help the disabled workforce find jobs. They include Fortune 500s like Dell, IBM, Merck, Pfizer, FedEx, AOL, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Caterpillar, Pepsi and Procter & Gamble. A list of contractors and their contract amounts can be found at USAspending.gov