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Employment First Act

Capitolwire: PA House Panel Holds Hearing on Job Services for Disabled

The delivery of state services and funding to help disabled individuals obtain jobs was the topic Monday at a hearing before a House panel.

The hearing before a subcommittee of the Labor and Industry Committee focused on the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation’s Combined State Plan and the implementation of the state Employment First Act of 2018, which sets policies to help the disabled achieve economic independence through jobs that pay competitive wages in integrated community settings.

Testifying during the first round were Shannon Austin, executive director of the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, which provides vocational rehabilitation services and works with providers to help individuals with disabilities get jobs, the Cambria County Association for the Blind and Handicapped and Pennsylvania Statewide Independent Living Council.

The challenges of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic and impact of long-term state funding shortfalls were themes at the hearing.

The pandemic kept many disabled individuals from pursuing jobs or applying for services due to threat of infection, said Austin.

But the increase in vaccinated individuals and nationwide labor shortage has led to work opportunities in recent months for the disabled, she added.

OVR is writing changes to its vocational rehabilitation services plan that will go out for a 30-day public comment period starting next month, said Austin.

She indicated that one priority will be to create more employer apprenticeships for the disabled.

A network of nine state-funded independent living councils is in need of a state aid boost, said Jeffrey Iseman, public policy coordinator for the Pennsylvania Statewide Independent Living Council. He urged passage of House Bill 87 to boost the base level funding for those councils.

“Our 9 state-funded CILS have received one increase in funding (2019-20 state budget) since 2008 (cuts occurred between 2008-12) while having their appropriated funds reduced due to an administrative fee…,” said Iseman.

The goal of the Employment First Act is to make segregated and sub minimum wage jobs for disabled individuals the exception rather than the norm, said Dr. Josie Badger, a member of the Employment First Oversight Commission (EFOC). These jobs should pay at least the state minimum wage and have the disabled working alongside nondisabled workers, she added.

The 2021 report regarding the Employment First Act offers 25 recommendations for the executive and legislative branches to consider, said EFOC chair Steve Suroviec.

Several include a hearing to determine what state agencies are doing to meet a goal of having people with disabilities fill at least seven percent of state government jobs, requiring each school district to have a full-time qualified transition coordinator to support disabled students with employment goals and consider revisions to the Civil Service Reform Act to make it easier for qualified applicants with disabilities to be hired by state agencies.

Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, the subcommittee chair, said she plans to hold another hearing on state government hiring practices for the disabled.

(Source: Capitolwire, November 23, 2021).

On June 19, 2018, Governor Tom Wolf signed House Bill 1641, codifying the Employment First Policy that the governor established by executive order in March 2016 to increase competitive employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

“My executive order two years ago focused Pennsylvania on being a model state that is hospitable to workers with disabilities and I’m proud to sign this bill adding the weight of law,” said Governor Wolf. “This is a win-win for Pennsylvania. Our employers need smart and skilled workers and increasing employment opportunities ensures people with disabilities can achieve greater independence and inclusion in our communities.”

House Bill 1641, sponsored by Rep. Bryan Cutler, creates the Employment First Act requiring state, county, and other entities receiving public funding to first consider competitive integrated employment as the preferred outcome of publicly funded education, training, employment, and related services, and long-term services and support for individuals with a disability who are eligible to work under state law.

The statute also creates the Governor’s Cabinet for People with Disabilities and the Employment First Oversight Commission. The Governor’s Cabinet for People with Disabilities will review existing regulations and policies to recommend changes to laws, regulations, policies, and procedures that ensure implementation of Employment First. The Employment First Oversight Commission will establish measurable goals and objectives to guide agencies and report annual progress.

Following the governor’s Executive Order 2016-03, entitled Establishing ‘Employment First’ Policy and Increasing Competitive-Integrated Employment for Pennsylvanians with a Disability, the Departments of Labor and Industry, Human Services, and Education have been working to obtain stakeholder and business input to meet the administration’s goals. The agencies, which helped to develop HB 1641, released recommendations in September 2016.

The recommendations include:

  • Review, identify, and change policy to align with Executive Order 2016-03.
  • Raise the expectations of employment goals for children with a disability at an early age. Work with parents and publicly funded programs to shift expectations towards this goal.
  • Prepare young people with a disability to become working adults with a disability.
  • Transition students from secondary education to adult life. Assist adults with a disability in getting and keeping a job.
  • Improve access to reliable transportation to get to and from work, on time, every time.
  • Lead by example – improve state contracts and reduce barriers to commonwealth employment.
  • Expand private-public partnerships.
  • Increase public awareness.
  • Collect and coordinate data.
  • Implement, monitor, and provide accountability.

In support of the Employment First initiative, 20 Pennsylvania college students with disabilities are participating in a 12-week paid internship with the Wolf Administration this summer. The interns are working in positions at state agencies related to their academic backgrounds and gaining experience in their field of study and building connections with potential employers.