Lauren Weber, The Wall Street Journal - March 18, 2014
There is hardly a word in the national press about the new U.S. Labor Department rules going into effect today, requiring companies with federal contracts to aim for 7% of their employees having disabilities, and 8% being veterans. I have seen some stories in random local outlets, but the The Wall Street Journal seems to be the only major news organization taking any time at all to cover this. At first that concerned me, because The Wall Street Journal is fairly conservative and has a pro-business outlook. However, I think that actually helps in this case because while the tone of the article isn’t what I’d call hostile, it does raise some sensible questions. For instance:
- Employers will need to ask all of their employees whether they have a disability, so they can be counted toward the 7% goal. Will that conflict with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits employers from digging for details on employees disabilities, and protects employees’ right to not disclose disabilities? It seems like it will be fine for employees to ask, in a general way, if employees have a disability, and the employees won’t be obligated to answer. And “answering” seems to amount to nothing more than Yes or No, no details required. Still, it may take quite awhile for everyone to get comfortable with the question itself, and the idea of counting the number of employees with disabilities at all.
- Some employees who actually do have qualifying disabilities might not think of themselves as "disabled", and won't be counted. This is one of those instances when the lack of consensus about what "disability" is, and what terms are preferred, actually could get in the way of a valuable policy.
- 7% sounds like a high goal, but that's only 3-4 people in workplace of 50 employees. The WSJ article speculates that many companies may already be in compliance, and I tend to agree. That's fine, but since the new goal is supposed to increase employment of people with disabilities, maybe the goal is too modest.
Of course even on paper, this is just a goal, not a requirement or quota. From one point of view, this suggests that the new rules are purely symbolic, possibly a futile gesture.
On the other hand, I think this is one of those rare cases when "awareness" is more than just a platitude. If nothing else, the new rules will make both employers and employees a bit more aware of various aspects of disability and employment. Hopefully it will also produce enough data to figure out whether 7% is reasonable employment goal, or if it's too high or too low. Accurate statistics across all qualifying businesses might also help distinguish between those that really are open to workers with disabilities, and those that might try to parlay a few "heartwarming" hires into some kind of Good Samaratin image.
The rules may also give disabled people looking for work a different feeling about their disabilities. At whatever point during the application process they feel comfortable, they can mention their disability as a potential positive, not something to explain away or minimize.