Feds urge contractors to increase disability employment

Two signs one saying employment and one saying unemployment
Department of Labor Acts

In a major push to expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities, the Department of Labor proposed an overhaul Thursday of affirmative action regulations for federal contractors.

Though federal contractors have been barred from discriminating against people with disabilities since 1973, with the implementation of Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, there have never been measurable goals for tracking progress.

The proposed regulations would require federal contractors and subcontractors to set a hiring goal of having 7 percent of their workforce consist of people with disabilities, including 2 percent with a particularly severe disabilities.

“For nearly 40 years, the rules have said that contractors simply need to make a ‘good faith’ effort to recruit and hire people with disabilities. Clearly, that’s not working,” said Patricia Shiu, director of the Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Programs, in a news release.

The hiring goal is not a quota. However, the proposed regulation would require contractors to increase recruitment procedures, training efforts and data collection, including voluntary self identification procedures so as not to conflict with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations barring pre-employment disability-related inquiries.

Failure to take these steps would result in penalties ranging from the potential termination of contracts  to “debarment from receiving future contracts,” the proposal states.

“An affirmative action program must be ‘more than a paperwork exercise,’ ” the proposal states. “Rather, an affirmative action program is a management tool that includes measurable objectives, quantitative analyses, and internal auditing and reporting systems designed to measure the contractor’s progress toward achieving equal employment opportunity for individuals with disabilities.”

The new affirmative action regulations would be binding only on companies with more than 50 employees or whom receive more than $50,000 from the federal government.

The last employment figures show that the unemployment rate, which does not include individuals who have been out of the workforce for more than 27 weeks, was 13 percent for people with disabilities, compared to 8.6 percent for the general population. However, the percentage of people with disabilities out of the workforce was 79.2 percent, compared to 30.5 percent for people without disabilities.

With the announcement, the Department of Labor began a 60-day public comment period for the proposal, before finalizing the regulations some time next year.