New regulations under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA), which took effect on March 24th of this year, have refocused national attention on the issue of disability and employment. For the first time, federal contractors will be inviting job applicants to voluntarily self-identify as individuals with disabilities or protected veterans at both the pre-offer and post-offer stages of employment. Also, for the first time the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) established a utilization goal of 7% for persons with disabilities and a benchmark of 7.2% (for 2014) for protected veterans. The impetus for these game changing regulations is the high unemployment rate for both of these groups.
New regulations, however, always present new challenges as well. The purpose of this article is to provide strategies for addressing these challenges from a business perspective, and to assist federal contractors in marching beyond compliance, attracting new talent, and creating a culture where all workers feel welcome and valued.
Introducing the invitation for self-identification at both pre- and post-job offer will require a careful explanation to assure applicants of the intent and use of this information. A good place to start is informing current and prospective employees that your company is a federal contractor, or a vendor, and as such you have new obligations to help increase the employment of persons with disabilities who historically have had higher unemployment rates than their peers without disabilities. Additionally, you may want to emphasize that self-identification is voluntary, the information is kept confidential, and that it would help to obtain reasonable accommodation, if needed, to support job performance and ensure success. To meet the suggested utilization goal and required benchmark, building relationships with organizations capable of referring qualified individuals with disabilities and protected veterans is an essential strategy. The National Employment Team (NET) of the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (http://www.rehabnetwork.org/customers-2/business) and the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS) (http://www.dol.gov/vets/Employment) are two organizations that can assist in recruitment of persons with disabilities and veterans nationally. The Employer Assistance and Resource Network, (http://www.askEARN.org) funded by the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability and Employment Policy (ODEP), can provide consultation and support on effective outreach and hiring strategies to maximize the utilization of available resources. Additionally, federal contractors should communicate their commitment to hiring persons with disabilities and veterans with their current workers and encourage them to refer peers to vacant positions.
Communicating with your Workforce
Many companies are informing their employees via written correspondence about the importance of their federal contracts to their overall operating budget and of how critical maintaining this revenue is to the company’s longevity. Messaging is essential to communicate company commitment to an equitable workplace and further promote the value and strength of a diverse workforce. To ensure that these messages reach all current and potential employees, it is critical that materials be disseminated in formats that are accessible to all, including individuals who are blind and visually impaired. By providing additional information on confidentiality and ensuring that self-identification information is only for reporting purposes and data analysis, will put some employees and applicants at ease. Others might be concerned that this personal information is utilized for other purposes, such as determining health insurance costs, workers compensation liabilities, performance management or layoffs. Reassuring applicants and employees that self-identification will not have an unfavorable impact on their employment is critical and should be reiterated each time this form is introduced and its completion is solicited.
Education and Training for the Disclosure Process
So, why is it important for employees and job applicants to self-identify? What are the benefits for employees of disclosing their disability or protected veteran status? Prospective employees may view self-identification as a competitive employment advantage, as well as an opportunity to help the company meet affirmative action goals related to increasing the representation of employees with disabilities and protected veterans. Furthermore, employees may want to work for a company that promotes inclusion and values the contribution of diverse talent.
Aside from the pre- and post-offer self-identification, federal contractors are also required to survey all employees about their disability status during the first year of the 503 implementation. To achieve the best results, the timing of these surveys must be carefully planned. When is the best time to introduce this survey and how should you educate your workforce on the purpose and impact of disability disclosure? Some companies are planning on a roll out in October which is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, or in November in conjunction with Veterans Day. One time to avoid introducing the survey is during the open enrollment period for medical insurance as it may suggest to employees that their disclosure of disability might be linked with their benefits eligibility or cost.
Although the decision to disclose a disability can be a difficult one for both applicants and employees, research has shown that certain employer characteristics can increase the odds. Barring a need for any type of accommodation, studies conducted by the Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University revealed that people are more likely to disclose a disability where they have a supportive relationship with their supervisor, and that roughly 60% of those who choose to disclose, do so to co-workers and direct supervisors rather than to HR. These findings point to the importance of educating direct supervisors not only on the technical requirements of the regulations, but also of its spirit and intent. The establishment of disability and veterans focused Employee Resource Groups (ERG) is just another strategy that may promote self-identification.
What begins as a discussion about the best use of the mandatory OFCCP form will quickly become more complex, as employers become aware of the nuanced perceptions of individuals who are asked to disclose their disability. By focusing attention on the best way to encourage applicants and employees to voluntarily self-identify a non-obvious disability, employers will also begin to address workplace culture, environmental accessibility, and inclusion in a way they might never have considered before. Having an open mind and treating applicants and employees equitably will go a long way in advancing opportunities and minimizing unconscious biases in the employment process.
For compliance information on 503 and VEVRAA please visit http://www.dol.gov/ofccp/regs/compliance/resources/.htm. For resources and strategies on disability and veteran inclusion, please see the federal contractor resources on www.AskEARN.org.