March 24, 2014 is an important milestone for federal contractors. This is the date when new regulations pertaining to the employment of persons with disabilities (Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act) and veterans (VEVRAA – the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act) went into effect. Among major compliance obligations outlined in these regulations are two overlapping ones that we address in this article: numerical targets – a 7% utilization goal for Section 503 and an annually adjusted hiring benchmark for veterans (7.2% for 2015) – and self-identification of disability and veteran status. Contractors are permitted to “double-dip” by counting veterans with disabilities for both the 503 utilization goal and for the VEVRAA benchmark should such applicants voluntarily self-identify in both categories. While this may be good news, applicants’ and employees’ reluctance to self-identify presents a major compliance challenge since most people with disabilities, including veterans, have non-visible impairments and had previously experienced some level of discrimination in the pursuit of employment.
So what can federal contractors do to increase the likelihood of self-identification and thereby achieve the numerical targets established by Section 503 and VEVRAA?
Create opportunities to increase disability and veteran-focused cultural awareness
The next two months, October and November, offer excellent opportunities to jumpstart or expand initiatives that recognize the value and contributions of people with disabilities and veterans in the workplace. October is National Disability and Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) and November’s Veterans Day honors veterans. Planning and conducting events and activities in recognition of these two commemorative months can send a strong message to current and prospective employees about organizational commitment to hiring and inclusion of veterans and people with disabilities. Guest speakers, displays, and mentoring events are just a few examples of potential activities that may deliver the message of a disability and veteran-friendly company culture. A daily or weekly intranet communication of myths, facts, figures, and statistics or specific related quizzes may be another simple yet effective delivery method to convey interest and commitment and as such encourage awareness in days or months to come. Organizations that already have disability and veteran-focused employee resource or affinity groups could engage members in planning and supporting events and activities, and those who have yet to establish such groups may use these months to get started.
Disseminate self-identification forms and information
While the requirement to request self-identification of disability status applies at pre- and post-hire of new employees, during the first year of the implementation of the Affirmative Action Plan, and every five years thereafter, there are no further guidelines or restrictions as to the frequency by which this form may be distributed to employees. Planning and engaging in a NDEAM campaign could be an excellent opportunity to disseminate information about company policies and practices that reaffirm commitment and support for the employment of people with disabilities. This may include information about how to request reasonable accommodations along with the voluntary self-identification form.
To assist veterans in determining their status under Section 4212, the OFCCP released a new infographic on August 14th with updates to the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 (VEVRAA) regulations. This infographic provides information and assistance in helping veterans determine to which category of ‘protected class’ they belong to, including disabled veteran, when they are asked to self-identify.
Use the compliance checklist
Also in August, the OFCCP posted an interactive tool it developed in collaboration with the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) to help contractors assess their compliance with the Affirmative Action Program requirements of Section 503 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act by answering a series of questions about their company’s policies and practices. While contractors are not required to use this checklist and completing it does not ensure compliance, its use may help in increasing awareness and point to potential areas that may need attention. For the checklist, click on the link below:
Evaluate technology accessibility
Accessible technology is critical to increasing productivity and ensuring workplace and marketplace inclusivity. On the workplace front, accessible technology allows people with a wide range of disabilities and talents to apply for and perform effectively a variety of jobs often without further accommodations. There are several no-cost resources that organizations can use to increase and evaluate the accessibility of their websites, online application systems, and digital content. These include the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology (PEAT) which has a simple tool, TechCheck, to assess technology accessibility practices: www.peatworks.org/techcheck/; and the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) which also has a self-assessment tool, SNAP, that evaluates the accessibility of online application systems: www.AskJAN.org/media/downloads/SNAPTool.xls. In addition, JAN provides 10 tips for making websites accessible.
Train managers on disability inclusion
Managers and supervisors have a significant role in hiring, coaching, performance evaluations, promotions, and employee development for all their direct reports, including employees with disabilities. Along with co-workers, they may also be the first ones to whom an employee with a disability may self-identify. Consequently, their responses and actions are critical to employees’ overall experiences with companies’ attitude and policy on disability inclusion and practice. Yet, few managers and supervisors have the occasion to participate in training and education opportunities to increase their knowledge, awareness, and understanding of disability inclusive workplace cultures and practices. Delivering training to this group is therefore essential to ensure that they respond appropriately to disability disclosure and accommodation requests and inform and involve HR promptly in the process.
In response to this need and in recognition of the time limitations faced by managers and supervisors, the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Employment and Disability Institute (EDI) at the Industrial and Labor Relations School of Cornell University developed the Just-In-Time Toolkit for Managers. This customized program consists of ten tools with each based on a disability-related situation or issue, such as hiring, accommodations, and performance appraisals typically encountered by managers.
For questions about resources and ideas or further information on the Toolkit, please contact the authors of this article.