Advocates Split on Workforce Investment Act Rewrite
Sensitive issue arises on transition to jobs
A bill now pending in the U.S. Senate that would reauthorize the long-overdue Workforce Investment Act has exposed rare points of disagreement among organizations that advocate on behalf of people with disabilities.
The law, first passed in 1998, provides funding for job training and rehabilitation programs housed in the U.S. departments of Education and Labor. It includes provisions for youth with disabilities who are transitioning to the workforce, and has been overdue for reauthorization since 2003.
The Senate bill passed on an 18-3 vote in the Senate Health, Labor, Education, and Pensions Committee last month, and must now go to the full Senate. The sponsors of the bill said that it offers better coordination of job programs and applies one set of common performance metrics to each workforce program that is part of the act.
Among the provisions in the bill is a section championed by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a co-sponsor, who said it would curtail efforts to steer people with disabilities into jobs that pay below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 a hour. The provision would enact a series of worker protections, such as requiring that a person has received pre-employment transition services, applied for vocational-rehabilitation services, and worked toward employment that pays a competitive wage.
If those standards were met, however, a worker could be placed in a sub-minimum-wage job, as long as a rehabilitation counselor reviewed the placement every six months to ensure that it was part of training a worker for later employment at competitive wages.
The Chicago-based Easter Seals, which provides job opportunities for more than 80,000 youths and adults, supported the provisions of the Senate bill that it said offered better transition and employment services for people with disabilities.
"One of the things we are focused on is the attention to transitional services for youth, and giving young people with disabilities greater opportunities for work experience before they leave school," said Katherine Beh Neas, the organization's senior vice president for government relations.
But several disability groups argue that the proposal does a disservice to people with disabilities by enshrining a path to a sub-minimum-wage job in the bill, even if such employment is supposed to be only temporary.
The provision "purports to introduce protections to limit the number of youth with disabilities who are placed in sub-minimum-wage employment, but will have the unintended effect of trapping people with disabilities in dead-end, segregated, sub-minimum-wage jobs with the blessing of the rehabilitation system," said Marc Maurer, the president of the National Federation of the Blind, based in Washington.
Christopher Danielsen, the director of public relations for the federation, said that part of the dispute is between organizations that are governed by people with disabilities and organizations that include job training as part of their advocacy work.
"The sheltered workshops who claim to be providing this great training to people with disabilities through sub-minimum-wage employment opportunities, they would love for the rehabilitation agencies to be sending them workers," Mr. Danielsen said.
Other groups that oppose that part of the bill include the Autism Self-Advocacy Network and the National Down Syndrome Congress.
But Ms. Neas, with Easter Seals, said that while paying workers below the minimum wage should be considered a last-resort option, such options have meant the difference between being employed and being jobless for some people.
"Our organization is about helping people reach their own goals. Our view is that one size does not fit all," she said.
The Workforce Investment Act reauthorization also would move the Rehabilitative Services Administration from the U.S. Department of Education to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The RSA oversees grants to state vocational-rehabilitation agencies to provide employment-related services for individuals with disabilities. The proposed shift has prompted a protest from the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, which says that the Education Department is a better fit for an agency that often works with young people making the transition from school to employment.
"We look at employment and careers with a whole different philosophy," said Rita Martin, the organization's deputy director. "Ultimately, we're wondering if our ability to provide significant supports to a person will be eroded."
Vol. 33, Issue 01, Page 19