Should the disabled have jobs?

Should the disabled have jobs? Does that question make you uncomfortable? Are you not sure how to answer or do you immediately know how to answer? Equal opportunity says yes, they sJoe1hould be allowed and certainly have the right. If you own a business or are a manager in charge of hiring, would you hire someone with a disability? What if their methods were different but the results were the same? What if they did a near perfect job of completing the task but it took a little longer than a worker without a disability?

These questions and more are important for you to ask and have answers to right now. There is a bill being pushed in Congress regarding the 14 c Subminimum Wage law. The bill, introduced by Rep. Greg Harper  known as H.R. 831, is being touted as a way to free people with disabilities from being taken advantage of.  It will do away with 14c and require that all people including those with disabilities be paid at least the minimum wage rate.  At face value, especially if you are not familiar with the world of vocational training and employment for adults with disabilities, this seems like an easy decision. Yes, of course, why shouldn’t they be paid minimum wage like every one else?

In 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed.  In the law was a provision for allowing special wages for populations under particular circumstances.  The section known as 14c stated that certificates would be granted under strict guidelines that allowed a sub minimum wage to be paid to workers with disabilities. The intention was to encourage companies to employ these workers and be able to pay them according to their productivity.

Since that time, at least in my state of California, agencies have popped up to assist individuals with developmental disabilities (Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Down’s Syndrome, etc.)  in vocational training and job support. With funding through the state Department of Rehabilitation, thousands and thousands of adults through the years have benefitted from employment. The benefits include many things such as a paycheck to use for whatever they want, development of social as well as vocational skills, healthy activity for mental and physical well-being, etc.  The programs provide opportunities for the most challenged individuals who could work at a piece rate in a Work Activity Program (also known as a sheltered workshop), and also for those individuals who have the potential to work independently with just a little support to get started (known in the industry as an Individual Placement).

The state funds provide the wages for the instructor or job coach, the insurance, administrative costs and transportation as needed. Agencies work with local business owners in a variety of industries to hire the differently-abled workers.  In its original intent, this seems like a great win for all. Unfortunately, some agencies have become top-heavy with highly paid administrators and low paid staff. Some of those agencies hesitate to move the individual (known in the industry as a Consumer) forward into independent employment because it means losing that person’s funding.

As the mother of a 20-year-old with severe Autism, I do not expect to place my son in a work program. At least not until he fully understands what work and a paycheck means. That being said, I also understand as a former business owner that when I hire someone, I really need to get the most work for my money. To hire a person with a disability may be frightening to many business owners or managers because they are not convinced that the productivity will be worth the hourly wage paid out.  This is an understandable concern, but not impossible to solve.

What is needed at this time is for both sides of this issue to come up with solutions. I for one do believe that 14c is antiquated and certainly does not protect those with disabilities. I do not, however, believe it is smart to suddenly pull the rug out from under those individuals who rely on their jobs for social interaction, spending money and personal growth.

Most of the adults I work with in our company are receiving full disability, housing, medical and transportation funding through the state. The amount they receive is fully dependent upon the amount of money from outside sources.  This means that if you have a trust fund set up by your family, that fund amount will affect your benefit amount. If you have a job and make over a certain amount you may lose your medical or disability support…permanently.  There needs to be a permanent safety net for these individuals. They would be much more inspired to work independently at a regular minimum wage job if they knew that their benefits would reactivate should they lose the job.

Rehabilitation was set up as just that…RE-habilitation. The individuals we are discussing have lifelong disabilities and their vocational skill level or employability is usually dependent upon the severity of the disability. Some would be able to go toe to toe with a worker without a disability. Others would require many accommodations, adaption, special treatment and possibly less productivity expectations.  That is a reality. Employers need to be willing to take a step back and look at the value of each individual.

We must change what we are doing and how we are doing it. Many people with disabilities are being held back and not challenged to grow because of the fear of a loss in benefits or an agency’s concern for the bottom line. Let’s consider looking at the strengths and work toward a truly equal opportunity for everyone.

A Kinder, Gentler Workplace

I don’t know about you, but for the past few years I have noticed an increasing schism between the old understanding of boss and worker relationship and the new.  As individuals begin to realize their own power as a cog in the great machine called capitalism, they are more apt to speak out or make changes.  Not only as a worker but also as a consumer.  In truth, an informed person is an empowered person and the spreading of the empowerment in the name of change can bring any organization to its knees.  Some companies see the value of happy, healthy and respected employees, others do not.  Those that do thrive because they get the highest productivity from those workers.  The companies that see a worker as disposable and a liability will reap poor productivity, theft and dishonesty from their workers.

According to human resource veteran David Russo, companies like Johnson & Johnson and Men’s Warehouse are great examples of successful organizations that understand the importance of their employees.  In an interview by Connie Blaszczyk of Monster.com, Russo says this:

    “…Johnson & Johnson and the Men’s Wearhouse are great examples. These companies offer their employees a work environment that allows them to do exceptional work while acknowledging the company’s dependence on them to succeed. These companies tell employees that they value them as persons, not just when they deliver the goods. But they’re also clear that they must deliver the goods in order to be recognized.

They show recognition and respect for their people via the behavior of their managers. There’s no pecking order — the leadership is all qualitative. It gives people an opportunity to have high respect for their leaders — gained by listening and taking risks. It’s about leadership that delivers as a resource, not as an overseer, and is willing to act as a coalescing agent to guide and encourage; and to create an environment for motivation.

Behaviors of employees are always somewhat self-centered. But when they want to deliver valuable contributions and help the company advance and compete, then everyone goes forward. AND this enlightened self-interest works for employee and employer alike.”

John Sununu once said, “I do not support raising the minimum wage, and the reason is as follows. When the minimum wage is raised, workers are priced out of the market. That is the economic reality that seems, at least so far, to be missing from this discussion.”

This attitude, seeing workers as a business cost versus an investment, is based on a medieval hierarchical philosophy that some are entitled and some are not.  Workers should be happy to be working.  If they must work more than one job in order to survive, then so be it.  The focus for the “boss” mentality is only the financial bottom line.  These types of business owners or managers do not recognize the value of goodwill in the community, which extends to employees and their families.  Have we learned nothing from the story by Charles Dickens’, A Christmas Carol?

Just when it seemed that we headed in a new direction where workers were honored for their contribution toward a company’s success, along comes a new desperate surge of animosity from the top-tier of the world’s corporations.  But just as the surge in the negative direction grows, so does the surge in companies moving forward with an attitude of gratitude for their employees.  This great divide only shows that the two models are at a natural point in evolution.  One fights for what was, one fights for what is to be.  The stronger will survive.  That is the great mantra of the free market system.

At this point is seems that those companies with an altruistic approach to its employees will most likely move ahead and squeeze out those who cling to the old ways.  Educating employees on peaceful resolution, problem solving and time management in regular training meetings results in a workforce that can deal with daily lateral level issues.  Recognizing employees for what they do right and finding ways to eliminate the potential for insecurity, envy and unhealthy competition results in an atmosphere of abundance rather than scarcity.

Thomas DeLong of the Harvard Business Review said, “Comparing is a trap that permeates our lives, especially if we are high-need-for-achievement professionals.”

Creating an environment that allows growth in a variety of ways, rewarding employees for achievement in everything from good ideas to finishing a project ahead of deadline, and then following through with a merit system moves a company in a good direction.  This is investing.  Even when a company has to be tight on payroll, employees who are made to feel that they are part of the hope in a company’s comeback will work even harder to bring that improvement to fruition.  Employees who are made to feel like the problem in a company’s economic downturn are apt to get what they can before they lose their job.  Productivity is last on their list of priorities.

When a company is on its way down the slide to destruction there are obvious signs along the way.  One is the attitude of the employees and the things they say about their company.  A great article about the worst cancers in a company was written by Louise Altman at the Intentional Workplace.   In her blog “Envy, Jealousy, Resentment:  The Comparison Emotions at Work,” Louise reminds us that unbalanced competition at work can create a negative atmosphere.

“It is easy to see why envy, jealousy and resentment are routinely triggered in most workplaces.  Position, power arrangements, lack of trust and transparency, miscommunication, time pressures and real or perceived scarcity of resources can pit people against colleagues and the “competition.”

In fact, unbalanced competitiveness can set the stage for envy, jealousy, resentment and greed. Because competition is the primary ethos that drives Western business, competing with others is an expected and even desirable function of the business model.”

But what if instead of individual competition in business, we can be motivated as a team.  This would only benefit the business in the long run and certainly would build a sense of unity and pride in the workers through their achievement.  I personally believe we are headed in that direction.

When I look at successful business models that are on the rise, I see those who are utilizing the latest networking technology efficiently, finding creative solutions for expanding their benefits for employees, allowing some creative freedom for and inviting ideas from employees and recognizing the constant fluctuations in consumer attitudes as the cream of the crop.  Those companies who stay mired in the old “us versus them” and a wider profit margin at all costs are the ones that will eventually die off, bringing a resounding truth to the capitalistic triumphant shout of survival of the fittest.