By Melissa J. Anderson

According to a new US Labor Department proposal, companies with federal contracts will have to have 7% of their workforces made up of people with disabilities. With roughly 200,000 federal contractors, the Associated Press reported, that means a quarter of the nation’s companies would be affected by the rule – federal contractors take in about $700 billion annually.

Patricia Shiu, Director of the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, said, “This is probably the greatest proposal for real substantive change since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act” of 1990.

She continued, “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. Clearly, that’s not working.” The unemployment rate for workers with disabilities is 13%, while the rate for all workers is about 8%, according to recent numbers.

And according to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, 79% of working-age people with disabilities are outside the labor force. Only 30.5% of people without disabilities are outside the labor force. This rule would increase the diversity of the workforce significantly.

Barbara Otto, Executive Director of the Chicago-based organization Health & Disability Advocates, said, “This is a huge step toward transparency and accountability. It’s great that, given that one fifth of Americans now has a disability, now we’re going to try to bring in hiring incentives to bring them into the labor force.”

She added, “This will have a positive impact on the economy and on a population that has been traditionally underemployed.”

Increasing Diversity

Otto believes that employers ultimately stand to gain by seeking more workers with disabilities. “Because this is such a heterogeneous population, they’ll be enhancing the diversity of their workforce by other measures as well,” she explained, for instance, gender or ethnicity.

She continued, “The proposed rule also gives employers an opportunity to discuss things some employees may not have been willing to talk about before. It could give employers the chance to make an assessment of where they already are with the percentage of employees who have disabilities. It could improve things for those already employed.”

And, it could improve life for the workforce at large. “Universal design usually benefits everyone in the workplace – for example if you make it easier for a person with a disability to get into the building, you’re making it easier for everyone to get into the building.”

When it comes to paying for special accommodations, Otto said, often employers only need to pay $500 or less, and this is frequently offset by state and federal incentives.

Countering Opposition

But opposition to the rule is there – mainly it would increase paperwork and administrative costs to federal contractors.

Michael Eastman, executive director for labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was cautious. He commented to the AP, “The agency issued a number of regulations that have dramatically expanded paperwork and record-keeping requirements with real costs to contractors.”

BusinessInsurnace’s Judy Greenwald said employers are also worried about the prospects of locating enough workers with disabilities for their needs.

Otto had a solution for that, as well. Her organization’s campaign, Think Beyond the Label, has launched a new website for employers to locate skilled workers with disabilities. “We just launched a job portal for job seekers with disabilities. We’re really looking at growing the pipeline of qualified, skilled individuals who can meet employers’ needs.”

Think Beyond the Label’s Hire Gauge also provides information on state and federal resources and tax incentives available to employers that hire people with disabilities. It also provides information on where employers can get help with administrative tasks to manage the new rule.

She explained, “We are encouraging people to think beyond the disability label, and think about who is the best candidate for the job.”

She added, “I have a colleague who is an individual with a disability. He asked, ‘if you want to hire someone who thinks outside the box, why not hire somebody who lives outside the box?’”

The Office of Federal Contact Compliance Programs is accepting comments on the proposed rule until February 7.