CHICAGO (Sept. 10, 2014) - U.S. businesses that contract with the federal government are preparing for a new seven-percent employment goal for people with disabilities. President Obama's point person at the U.S. Labor Department tasked with spearheading that effort traveled to Chicago today to speak with area human resources and Diversity & Inclusion executives at a symposium hosted by energy company Exelon and the National Organization on Disability (NOD). Patricia Shiu, Director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, was joined on today's panel by Randy Lewis, the former Senior Vice President at Walgreens, a large employer with headquarters in Chicago that successfully created thousands of jobs for people with disabilities.
"With the Labor Department's historic rule change having taken effect this part March, many companies are working to comply right now," said NOD President Carol Glazer. "It's why we asked Director Shiu to be with us today, so that Chicago-area employers who may have questions about the new employment targets can speak directly to the woman overseeing its implementation. Not only that, they can hear from a fellow executive whose personal passion for the issue resulted in Walgreens establishing what is widely considered the most successful disability hiring initiative in the country. We are grateful to our partners at Exelon for helping to bring these outstanding leaders and this timely symposium to Chicago."
Today's symposium, Moving Beyond Compliance: Successfully Hiring and Including Employees with Disabilities, is the second in a series jointly hosted by Exelon, the nation's leading competitive energy provider, and NOD's CEO Council. The inaugural event was held last year in Philadelphia. Exelon President and CEO Chris Crane commended those in attendance for joining Exelon in making disability hiring a priority.
"Employing people with different talents and backgrounds drives innovation, strengthens our connection with our communities and customers, and makes our organizations stronger," Crane said. "People with disabilities represent an underutilized labor pool. As employers, we must connect with these talented candidates and ensure they enter an inclusive environment when they join our teams."
The Labor Department revised the rule implementing Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA) regulations in 2013 to update and strengthen federal contractors' affirmative action and nondiscrimination responsibilities. The framework articulating contractors' responsibilities to hire individuals with disabilities and protected veterans have been in place since the 1970's. However, substantial disparity in the workforce participation of individuals with disabilities-including a growing number of veterans-persists.
The new regulations include a seven-percent disability employment goal for nearly 200,000 federal contractor establishments, as well as a national hiring benchmark for protected veterans (currently 7.2%), under VEVRAA. These metrics were created to give contractors yardsticks against which they can measure the success of their efforts in outreach to and recruitment of individuals with disabilities and protected veterans.
"I believe that what gets measured gets done. Good business leaders know that, too," said Director Shiu. "What we need now are leaders who can model success. Employers like Randy Lewis, groups like the National Organization on Disability and foundations like Exelon understand that real progress doesn't come from simply passing a law, writing a rule or enforcing a requirement. It comes from modeling best practices and creating a culture where we raise expectations, improve employment and empower everyone to bring their whole selves to work."
Randy Lewis, who retired in 2013 as Senior Vice President at Walgreen's after having successfully launched a disability hiring initiative at the popular retailer, implored executives not to hire people with disabilities because you have to, do it because it will make your company better.
"Having a son with autism, I got to see disability up close," said Lewis. "Despite lots of obvious challenges, my son, Austin, has surprised me at every turn in revealing his abilities and has made me confront my own preconceptions about people with disabilities. As an executive who makes hiring decisions, I came to realize that we were missing out on a huge source of talent. We literally started from scratch but were committed to making it work - to having an inclusive workplace for people with and without disabilities working side-by-side performing the same jobs and held to the same standards. After the transition had been in place for several months, what we learned was nothing short of remarkable. Productivity was up. The culture was improved. Our managers were more effective. Our company was simply better.
"So when other executives ask me how hard it will be to get to seven percent, my answer is: Why stop there? Don't make that number the ceiling - make it the floor."
Also today, NOD's Glazer announced that the second iteration of its popular corporate self-assessment tool -- the Disability Employment Trackerâ„¢ -- is now available. Introduced at last year's Philadelphia symposium, the Tracker is one example of how NOD is supporting employers who are working to meet the new reforms. Created by NOD in partnership with the National Business and Disability Council (NBDC) and Sirota, the Disability Employment Tracker allows companies to confidentially assess their own disability and/or veteran employment practices, benchmark their efforts against their peers, and use the results to educate internal stakeholders on successes and opportunities.
New this year is a partnership with DiversityInc, the nation's leading "diversity" publication. Starting with the April 2015 awards, DiversityInc will consider whether a company has completed the Disability Employment Trackerâ„¢ as a significant factor when determining their Top 10 Companies for Employees with Disabilities.
The National Organization on Disability (NOD) is a private, non-profit organization that promotes the full participation of America's 56 million people with disabilities in all aspects of life. The organization's current focus is on increasing employment opportunities for the 79 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities who are not employed. Current employment programs benefit individuals with disabilities looking for employment, high school students with disabilities transitioning into the workforce, seriously wounded, ill and injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and employers seeking to become more diverse by expanding existing diversity initiatives to include people with disabilities. For more information about NOD, its CEO Council, and employment programs, visit www.NOD.org.