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New rules on hiring disabled workers, vets go into effect for federal contractors

ST. LOUIS — New Labor Department regulations go into effect Monday that require federal contractors to take steps to hire minimum numbers of protected veterans and disabled workers.

If contractors don’t meet benchmarks for employing disabled workers and veterans or show that they are taking steps to do so, they could face penalties or in the extreme, their contracts could be revoked, officials say.

The target for disabled workers is 7 percent, and for veterans, the goal would either be based on the national percentage of veterans in the workforce — currently 8 percent — or a company’s own benchmark based on the best available data.

The rules are part of an effort to reduce the jobless rate among the disabled and for certain veterans, including those who served in Vietnam, the Gulf War and who recently returned from military action.

The regulations update the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 and Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. These laws have required federal contractors and subcontractors to affirmatively recruit, hire, train and promote qualified veterans and people with disabilities for the past four decades.

The difference is these regulations never included benchmarks before, said Tim Sarsfield, a partner in the Thompson Coburn law firm’s labor and employment group.

“Traditionally your affirmative obligations towards the disabled and veterans was you had a plan, but you really didn’t run any sort of statistical analysis,” he said.

The changes are being applauded by local veterans and disabled groups, including The Starkloff Disability Institute, which hosted an informational meeting about the changes Sunday.

David Newburger, co-director of the non-profit group, noted that 80 percent of disabled people who are working age do not have jobs; that compares to 30 percent of the population without disabilities.

“We are delighted that these rules are coming into effect, and we are working very hard with employers to help them be successful in the effort to include people with disabilities in their workforce,” he said.

Those companies include Centene, Enterprise Leasing, Enterprise Bank and Trust, Edward Jones, SSM Healthcare, Express Scripts and Nestlé Purina, he said.

Steve Degnan, chief human resources officer at Nestlé Purina, said in addition to working with the Starkloff Disability Institute, his company will be making its website work with the computers that people with disabilities use to surf the web and using social media in a much more robust way.

While the change might sound simple, and businesses want to comply, it will take time, money and personnel to do so.

One of the new requirements is that businesses canvass their work forces every five years to find out if any are veterans or have disabilities and need accommodations.

While some people have disabilities that are more noticeable to those around them, like deafness or blindness, people who have depression or are bipolar may feel reluctant to to say anything, Sarsfield said.

“It’ll be interesting to see how existing employees react to it,” he said. “Whether you respond is voluntary, but my experience is that most people’s opinion is: ‘If I’ve got a physical or mental ailment that I want you to know about, I’ll come to you.’”

Some contractors have raised concerns about asking job applicants if they are disabled, something that seemed to run afoul of the obligations imposed by the Americans with Disabilities Act. But last week, a U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia upheld the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs’ rule, saying it wasn’t a violation.

Others, like the Associated General Contractors of America, have argued that the regulations create an expensive way to resolve a problem that current data suggest does not exist.

Locally, Scott Wilson, chief executive of S.M. Wilson and Co., said his company is not only aware of the new obligations but willing and able to comply. The new regulations will mean changing his company’s job posting process and and how it measures workforce percentages for veterans and others, he said.

Sarsfield said the new regulations could catch some businesses off guard though.

“The obligations keep flowing downhill,” he said. “Sometimes you run into folks who say ‘I didn’t know I was a federal contractor until the OFCCP knocked on my door.’”

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