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Robin Shaffert

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Workforce Flexibility Promotes Employment of People with Disabilities

Posted: 10/29/10 06:03 PM ET

As we look back on October's celebrations of National Work and Family Month and National Disability Employment Awareness Month, advocates for increasing workforce flexibility and advocates for improving employment outcomes for people with disabilities should recognize the progress we have made. To a far greater extent than a year ago, it is generally agreed today that creating a flexible workplace benefits all employees, but it especially benefits employees with disabilities.

We need to also recognize how far we still have to go to achieve the promise of equal employment opportunity for people with disabilities. A review of data from the American Community Survey presented in the Annual Disability Statistics Compendium 2010, released this week, shows that the percentage of people with disabilities who are employed, 35.3%, is less than half of the percentage of people without disabilities who are employed, 74.3%. Similarly, the unemployment numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for September 2010 reveal the difficulty that jobseekers with disabilities face today. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities stands at 14.8%, which is staggering even when compared to the far too high 9.0% unemployment rate for people without disabilities.

Recognition of the potential for workplace flexibility to play a role in increasing employment of people with disabilities can be seen this year not only in the work of advocates and the voluntary measures taken by employers, but also in the actions of three agencies of the Department of Labor. The missions of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), and the Women's Bureau will all be furthered by promoting increased workforce flexibility. OFCCP is responsible for enforcing, for the benefit of job seekers and wage earners, the contractual promise of affirmative action and equal employment opportunity required of those who do business with the Federal government. ODEP is charged with providing national leadership on disability employment policy. The Women's Bureau safeguards the interests of working women, advocates for their equality and economic security, and promotes quality work environments.

Let's look first at what OFCCP has done this year. In July 2010, while we were celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, OFCCP initiated a regulatory proceeding to modernize the affirmative action regulations for the hiring, retention, and advancement of people with disabilities by federal contractors. OFCCP issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) seeking comment on eighteen listed items, including as item number 9, "To what extent does workplace flexibility, including flexibility in work schedules, as well as job-protected leave, impact recruitment and retention of individuals with disabilities?"

Many of the over 200 comments filed in response to the ANPRM addressed the importance of workplace flexibility. In the comments filed by the American Association of People with Disabilities, we enumerated a number of ways that workforce flexibility can help federal contractors attract, retain, and advance workers with disabilities. In addition to discussing the importance of providing for changes in the standard hours and place of work, we emphasized that federal contractors should pay particular attention to the needs of low wage and hourly workers for flexibility. As we argued, opportunities for meaningful input into schedules (including the ability to decline overtime), advance notice of scheduled hours, and consistency in the number of hours worked can be essential to low wage and hourly workers with disabilities. Lack of input regarding the hours worked, notice in scheduling, or fluctuations in the number of hours for which an employee is scheduled may make it impossible for workers to attend medical appointments, schedule transportation, and attend to other disability-related needs. We also argued that contractors that provide paid and unpaid job-protected leave in excess of that required by law will have an advantage in recruiting qualified candidates with disabilities. Further, we noted that providing job-protected leave promotes retention by allowing experienced employees to return to their jobs rather than encouraging termination when an employee requires more leave than the statutory maximum.

We are optimistic that when OFCCP issues the Final Rule regulating affirmative action for people with disabilities, the rule will recognize the important benefits of a wide range of workforce flexibility options for people with disabilities and will call on federal contractors to make workforce flexibility an aspect of their affirmative action plans.

Let's look next at what ODEP and the Women's Bureau have been doing. On August 9, 2010, the two agencies entered into a Memorandum of Agreement to cooperate in their efforts to expand and promote the understanding and use of workplace flexibility strategies for employees with complex needs, including people with disabilities. In addition to planning a one-day Workplace Flexibility Roundtable Forum focused on flexibility for people with disabilities, the two agencies are creating a roadmap of actions to expand the understanding of, and access to, best practices in workplace flexibility.

We hope that ODEP and the Women's Bureau will explore and promote a wide range of practices to increase workforce flexibility for people with disabilities and for all workers. Flexibility in scheduling (including part-time options) and flexibility in the place of work (including telecommuting) are helping many workers achieve the balance that they need to become or remain productive employees. And, there is room for improvement in and expansion of those practices. We also need to explore more fully the importance of predictability in scheduling and the options for expanded paid and unpaid leave in order to address the needs for flexibility of an even broader group of workers. Let's see how much progress we can make by October 2011.