Contractors concerned about proposed rule for workers with disabilities

May 27, 2012

Contractors and industry advocates are pushing back against a federal proposal that would require contractors to ramp up efforts to hire people with disabilities.

The Obama administration proposal, released in December, would require that 7 percent of federal contractors’ employees be workers with disabilities.

Despite existing efforts to encourage contractors to hire those with disabilities, the unemployment rate for these workers remains one-and-a-half times greater than the rate for those without, according to the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.

“OFCCP believes that the establishment of a single, national goal for all jobs in all geographic areas is a more viable approach to the establishment of a goal for individuals with disabilities,” the agency said in outlining the proposal.

The office came up with a goal of 7 percent by adding 5.7 percent — the estimated percent of the civilian labor force with a disability — with 1.7 percent — the percentage of those who are not in the labor force but might be interested in working if an opportunity became available.

The proposed rule calls for contractors to annually survey their employees to determine who might have a disability and to ask applicants if they want to self-identify. No one would be required to disclose a disability.

Additionally, the proposal calls for contractors to annually “review the outreach and recruitment efforts it has undertaken over the previous twelve months and evaluate their effectiveness in identifying and recruiting qualified individuals with disabilities.”

“Employers here in D.C. — a lot of them are longtime government contractors ... They’re very attuned to the need to accommodate and to engage in affirmative action with respect to people with disabilities,” said Connie Bertram, who heads Cooley’s Washington employment and labor and government contractor compliance practice groups. Their concern is “more the technical compliance, which to them seems very invasive to ask somebody before you even give them a job.”

A cost of compliance

Contractors have lodged their concerns by sending comments to the Labor Department. Waterford, Conn.-based Sonalysts, a professional services business with an office in Crystal City, said in its comments that the proposal would increase its annual costs by about $120,000.

These bureaucratic requirements force “companies like us to consider selling out to the big contractors because it is becoming so hard to compete,” wrote Lawrence F. Clark, Sonalysts’ chief executive. The company declined to comment.

Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin said it believes “that the proposed regulations, as currently written, may not advance the goal of increasing the employment of people with disabilities.”

Ten industry groups, including the National Retail Federation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, last week submitted a letter to the Labor secretary expressing their concerns.

Calling the rule’s requirements “impractical and unachievable mandates,” the letter said “it would be far better to have the key stakeholders explore the genuine barriers to increased employment for persons with disabilities and see how we can work together to remove them.”

The issue is “this notion of having affirmative action move away from good faith efforts ... to these sort of hard and fast rigid numbers,” said Daniel Yager, president of the HR Policy Association, which signed the letter.

Still, the National Federation of the Blind submitted comments backing the proposal, arguing that it “is time to set a meaningful, measurable benchmark.”

OFCCP said in its statement that getting more qualified people with disabilities into good jobs is part of its mission.

“Being a federal contractor is a privilege, not a right,” the agency wrote. “With that privilege comes a responsibility to treat workers fairly and make sure that good jobs are within reach of all qualified candidates.”

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