This post is the fourth and final in this series of posts related to employment for people with disabilities. Most of us are familiar with the grotesque inequities which confront persons with severe disabilities in sheltered workshops where due to federal waivers employers are allowed to pay sub-minimum wages of as little as 22 cents an hour. According to the National Disability Rights Network, more than 400,000 disabled workers are in sheltered workshops where they earn on average only $175.00 per month. These workers are segregated with other persons with disabilities and receive little to no training to enable them transition to more meaningful work. Many of these sheltered workshops are no more than daycare. However, different disability groups are tackling head on ways to change what some advocates deem outright exploitation of disabled workers in sheltered workshops.
Employment is also challenging for persons with moderate to mild disabilities who wish to engage in competitive employment. Whether because of outright discrimination or employer fear, persons with disabilities are often overlooked in the hiring process. But this situation may be slowly changing as different corporations are exploring ways to hire the disabled and creating win-win situations for everyone. What these corporations are discovering is that hiring the disabled makes sound business sense and is not merely an act of charity.
In 2007, Walgreens developed a goal to ensure that 30% of 800 employees at one of its high tech distribution centers would be employees with disabilities who would receive equal pay, equal jobs, and an inclusive work environment. The initiative was wildly successful and to its delight, Walgreens realized that this site operated 20% more efficiently than its other locations. As of 2012, Walgreens is now employing 1000 employees at its 17 distribution centers in the United States and Puerto Rico. One of its distribution centers now has 40% of employees with disabilities. Other major companies, such as Best Buy and Toys R Us, are likewise following this model to increase their hiring of disabled workers.
In the past few years, the Kessler Foundation has developed a “Transition to Work” grants program, which funds initiatives to develop programs that address the persistently high unemployment rates of the disabled, by providing grants to enable service providers and businesses to develop new ways to foster employment programs for the disabled. One such grant was made to the National Organization on Disability (NOD) in 2009. The NOD recognized that although well-meaning companies wanted to create a more diverse work force, they did not always speak the “same language” of the service providers for the disabled. “Success” was understood differently by potential employers and service providers. As a result, the NOD created the “Bridges to Business” program in 2009 to provide project management and oversight to help these two sectors work more collaboratively together to improve employment outcomes for the disabled. NOD worked closely with Lowe’s, which similarly to Walgreens was committed to creating a more diverse work force, was able to hire over 120 persons with disabilities and train 375 managers over an 18-month period.
The Federal government is ensuring that there are sound financial benefits to companies to hire employees with disabilities. For instance, employers must always maintain compliance with the anti-discrimination employment practices of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the hiring of employees with disabilities obviously protects against such litigation, lowering a business’ legal costs. Employers can also benefit from the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which is a federal tax credit program that can reduce an employer’s income tax liability by up to $2,400 per qualified new hire (individual from one of 9 targeted groups). Similarly, small business owners can apply for tax credits for expenses incurred creating eligible accesses for employees. Businesses of any size can deduct up to $15,000 per year for qualified expenses involved in the removal of architectural and transportation barriers to the disabled and elderly.
Employees with disabilities are loyal employees as demonstrated by their retention rate. The average turnover rate of employees with disabilities is 8% compared to 45% in the general population, thereby reducing the costs of hiring and training new employees. And the additional time spent training disabled employees can benefit all employees. The whole idea of universal design for learning—the concept that all students can benefit from the specialized instruction afforded students with disabilities in educational settings—can translate to employment situations. All employees, not just the disabled, can benefit from the specialized training and education afforded workers with disabilities.
Finally and harder to quantify are the intangible benefits a business can generate by hiring the disabled such as seen at Walgreens. Not only are the people with disabilities loyal employees, but their friends and families can also be loyal customers. All of us who advocate for and love our family members with special needs will certainly choose to patronize a business that supports employment of the disabled? The good will generated by the presence of disabled workers is simply good public relations for any business.