WASHINGTON (AP) – The Obama administration wants to use the power of government purchasing to help increase the number of disabled people in the workforce, proposing to require federal contractors to set a goal of having disabled workers make up at least 7 percent of their employees.
Labor officials called the plan one of the most significant efforts to protect the rights of disabled workers since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
"This is really a historic moment in the civil rights movement in America," Patricia Shiu, director of the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, said in an interview.
Federal contractors and subcontractors account for nearly a quarter of the nation's workforce. The proposal could have a ripple effect across the country and help bring down the 13 percent unemployment rate for disabled workers, which is about 1 1/2 times the rate of those without disabilities.
There are about 200,000 federal contractors taking in approximately $700 billion annually in contracts.
The government long has used the leverage of federal spending to promote affirmative action in the hiring of women and minorities. The new rule would, for the first time, give that same treatment to people with disabilities.
The proposed rule is not a quota. It would require companies to devote more resources to recruiting efforts to hire more disabled workers, improve training programs and update data collection.
Contractors would have to keep detailed records showing they are complying. The rule would require them to list job openings to increase their pool of qualified applicants.
"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," Shiu said. "Clearly, that's not working."
The Labor Department will take comments on the rule for 60 days before considering final approval next year.
Disability advocates praised the rule.
"It has been proven again and again that investing in opportunities for people with disabilities are repaid tenfold," said Lara Schwartz, spokeswoman for the American Association of People with Disabilities. "When more people have the opportunity to earn a living, pay taxes, live independently, the entire nation benefits."
Businesses have had mixed reactions to the plan, which could prove easier for larger companies to put in place than smaller ones that face increased costs and paperwork.
"The agency issued a number of regulations that have dramatically expanded paperwork and record-keeping requirements with real costs to contractors," said Michael Eastman, executive director for labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
That organization has yet taken a formal position on the proposed disability hiring rules. Eastman said his group supports the goals of trying to bring more people with disabilities into the workforce, "but we have concerns whether the agency has proposed the right approach or not."
Republican lawmakers have complained frequently about the costs that new regulations impose on businesses. On Wednesday, the House passed a measure that would require congressional review of rules that have an effect on the economy of $100 million or more or adverse effects on employment and productivity.
Some businesses are nervous about asking job applicants to identify themselves as disabled, fearing they may run afoul of the ADA ban on discrimination, Eastman said.
The government has struggled over the years to increase job opportunities for disabled workers. Among working age people with disabilities, 79 percent are outside the labor force altogether, compared with 30.5 percent for those without disabilities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The rule would apply to those contractors with at least 50 employees that have a minimum $50,000 in government contracts. That currently includes about 170,000 contractors.
By contrast, the ADA applies to employers with 15 or more workers. That law prohibits discrimination against the disabled, but does not require businesses to set a specific goal for hiring disabled workers.
Labor officials would monitor compliance with the new rules through annual audits, which are currently performed on about 4,000 contractors each year.
Companies failing to comply could be ordered to make back-payments to those denied employment or change training policies and procedures. In rare cases, the agency could seek a court order to bar a company from bidding for federal contracts.
"I think providing these sorts of measurable clear steps will give contractors the guidance and the clarity they need," Shiu said.
Labor Department: www.dol.gov/ofccp
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