Education

With Workplace Skills Program Shut, Students With Disabilities Sidelined

October 15, 2013 3 min read
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The federal government shutdown may have had little direct impact on K-12 schools around the country as of last week, but a handful of public and private school students in the Washington area were an unfortunate exception.

These students—roughly 40 in all—are part of a national program called Project search, which helps prepare students with disabilities for the workforce. The program, which is operated by a nonprofit organization in Cincinnati, helps students and young adults with disabilities gain career experience and workplace skills through a blend of classroom instructionand on-the-job training. The interns, who are typically in their final year of eligibility for special education services, spend a year at a range of job sites, including hospitals, banks, and universities.

In the Washington area, the interns are often placed at federal agencies, including the Education Department.

But, thanks to the shutdown, the interns can’t go to their job sites.

“They’re not allowed in the federal buildings,” said Rebecca Salon, the manager of the state office of disability administration at the District of Columbia’s department on disability services, which partners with Project search. And many of the federal employees who supervise the interns are furloughed, she added.

The program has worked out alternate arrangements—the Smithsonian interns are helping out in a nearby office, for example.

“They’re managing, but the number one question from all of them is, ‘When do we get back to our real jobs?’” said Lu Merrick, the director of the post high school program at the Ivy Mount School in Rockville, Md., which participates in the program. —alyson klein

Cameron French literally laid down the law.

“Interviews cannot be conducted with employees at this time, the excepted employee list is not public, and access to the [department] building is not allowed for this purpose,” Mr. French said via email.

When the government says “shutdown,” it means it. Employees can’t take paid leave, can’t check their work email, or listen to work voice mail.

Closed Up Tight

The Office of Personnel Management advises the rest of the executive branch on employee conduct during a shutdown, although it delegates some guidelines, like those regarding media contact, to individual departments. (Mr.French clarified that the department cannot ask an employee to be an interviewed, but opm rules don’t explicitly forbid media contact.)

Even though Mr. Hicks can’t do any formal work with the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge that his office oversees, he’s spent some of his free time reading over the proposals publicly available online.

“I haven’t been instructed not to go to the ed website,” Mr. Hicks said.

Indeed, for employees not exhausted from worrying about their family’s financial straits, there’s the looming problem of the work that has to be done once the shutdown ends. After all, someone has to process district Race to the Top applications, which were due Oct. 2, shutdown or otherwise. And then there’s the multitude of grant aplications, civil rights complaints, waiver claims, research experiments, and all the other functions of the department.

“I think the big damage is the psychological damage,” the department source said. “Everybody there works their tails off, and really believe in what they’re doing, helping out the nation’s children. And just the fact that we’ve all been taken away from this thing we love doing, I think that’s probably had a real morale effect on everybody.”

Mr. Hicks echoes that sentiment.

“I think most of us didn’t think this was going to actually happen,” he said. “But of course we also didn’t think that sequestration would happen,” he added, referring to the across-the-board funding cuts that have slammed all federal agencies.

Frustrated Workers

Amid the shutdown, Congress has passed some piecemeal bills seeking to alleviate some pain for federal employees, such as ensuring pay to military members. On Oct. 5, the House approved legislation authorizing back pay for the “nonessential” federal workers, a measure President Barack Obama supports.

If anyone thinks that employees are getting back pay for nothing, they should probably ease their stance. The work is going to get done, the employees say, but now there’s less time to do it, and that time has been diminished because of the congressional quagmire.

“Everyone I know at the department—and I have colleagues at other agencies—just wants to get back to work,” Mr. Hicks said. “We work in this profession because we want to make a difference, and it’s very frustrating not being able to make a difference right now.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 2013 edition of Education Week as With Workplace Skills Program Shut, Students With Disabilities Sidelined

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