Monday, January 25, 2010

Finding work can be slow going for disabled people

From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. (Thanks to Bill for the tip.)

Michael Blazek, an out-of-work financial analyst who’s visually impaired, has one way to confront hiring managers’ questions about whether he can do the job. He brings his tools to the interview.

Small enough to fit in his suit pockets, they include a magnifying glass, a monocular he uses to look at projections on a wall and an electronic magnifier that can blow up images 16 times. He also has a laptop with a magnifying program and closed-caption TV technology that allows him to work on spreadsheets.

"The company will not have to pay for anything," said Blazek, 47, of Irving, who nearly two years ago lost his job at a major telecommunications company after more than 20 years of moving up the ladder there.

The questions of how well they can perform and what accommodations employers might have to make are big elephants in the room for disabled job-seekers, but they aren’t the only issues. While the downturn might be easing, it’s worse for job-seekers with disabilities than just about any other segment of the work force. An estimated 13.8 percent of disabled job-seekers were unemployed in December, nearly 4 points higher than the work force overall, federal data showed.

Issues that face all job-seekers are bigger for people with disabilities: an impenetrable online application wall, employers requiring broader skill sets from new hires and little turnover at once-reliable employers such as grocery stores. With dwindling job choices, access to transportation — a big issue for the disabled — is even more critical. And federal laws that restrict questions that employers can ask candidates about their disabilities have stretched the patience of many hiring managers and ended up hurting the disabled, job-seekers and many people who help place them say.

"The law puts them in a position where they would rather not deal with a disabled person and move on to someone else," Blazek said.

Is the job market getting any better for people with disabilities?

"It’s hard to tell," Kathleen Martinez, assistant labor secretary for disability employment policy, said in Dallas on Thursday.

"The economy is in bad shape," said Martinez, who is blind. "Typically, disabled people are the last hired and the first let go. Many times, we’re not considered valid breadwinners. We’re considered charity."

Federal data are sketchy. Less than a quarter of disabled adults participate in the labor force compared with more than 70 percent for other adults. But there are reasons for optimism.

Texas’ Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, an agency charged with helping disabled job-seekers, increased the number of job placements statewide and in Tarrant County for fiscal 2009, which ended in September.

The agency, which also has 500 job placement subcontractors, attributes the increase to a greater focus on partnerships with employers.

One first for Tarrant County last year: a program at Cowboys Stadium in which the agency took over the operation of concessions and condiments stands during football games and other events. The 38 workers have disabilities ranging from closed head injuries to autism and learning disabilities and work for one of the Cowboys’ staffing contractors, earning minimum wage.

The agency started with 30 carts and 15 employees. It has since been rewarded with all 60 carts in the stadium. Some workers have taken the lead in helping supervise the others, and two have been promoted to posts elsewhere in the stadium.

"It just suddenly grew up in our back yard right here," said Robert Marx, the agency’s regional director for vocational rehabilitation, whose offices are near the stadium. "It made sense to us that there might be some jobs there."

Gregory Williams Jr. (pictured), 28, is one of the program’s stars.

Nearly killed in a car wreck in his hometown, Chicago, in 2005, he suffered a head injury that impairs his short-term memory. Now living in Grand Prairie with his parents, he arrived at the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services in August 2008.

After several interviews and no offers, he finally got the gig at the stadium, his first job since the crash.

"I’m just proud to be alive and being able to work and just being here," said Williams, who had been working construction in Chicago. "I’m not supposed to be here."

These days, things are looking better for him. He quickly became a lead cart attendant.

He’s studying at a junior college in Dallas to become a veterinary technician, using aids such as a tape recorder. Last week, he landed a job at a tile store in Arlington. He gets around town in a white Mercury Grand Marquis. He’s saving money to rent his own place because his parents are preparing to move away.

"One thing anybody can tell you about me, and you can put this in the paper: I love money," he said.

Marx and other agency administrators figure that the way to land more jobs for people like Williams is to establish more relationships with employers and better match employees to jobs.

"What we’ve really tried to do is understand the job," Marx said.

At Goodwill Industries of Fort Worth, another state contractor, employment specialists landed jobs for 170 people in 2009 compared with 234 in 2008. Tina Ramirez, employment services manager, says the environment loosened up after New Year’s. "We just see more job opportunities and are getting more interviews," she said.

WorkReady, a private contractor in North Texas, placed 262 disabled job-seekers in 2009. That’s as many as in 2008, when it had half the staff, CEO Daniel Thompson said. Nonetheless, he’s projected increases in benchmarks that he must meet to get paid this year. "I don’t have any real basis for it except that I have to be optimistic," he said.

How to get more disabled people in the labor force?

"That’s the really big story" of the federal data, said Terence McMenamin, a Bureau of Labor Statistics economist in Washington.

At certain income levels, a disabled adult’s federal benefits begin to diminish, he said. That, and the complex process applicants must complete for benefits, creates a strong incentive against work, McMenamin said. "It’s a really big risk to take for a person who has a disability," he said.

The government also allows job-seekers little savings to receive full benefits, including medical, Martinez notes. The government should raise the ceilings for savings and earnings, she said.

"We need to come up with some solutions to use the Social Security system as employment supports rather than employment disincentives," she said.

Martinez said she’s optimistic that employers are building on their "knowledge base" about working with people who have disabilities. The continued aging of the work force means that "they’re going to have to employ older people, and they’re going to have disabilities."

Blazek, the unemployed analyst who worked in customer service and, later, compensation and sales operations analysis for his former employer, estimates that he’s had a dozen in-person interviews in the last two years.

Blazek — who has 20/400 vision in both eyes — said that at an interview for a $65,000-a-year job as a compensation analyst, one human resources manager asked why he wasn’t maintaining eye contact. Blazek’s response: "I’m legally blind."

"I almost fell out of my chair on that one," said Blazek, who waits until an interview to bring up his disability.

There’s no agreement on when to disclose a disability.

Carrie Corbin, a senior project manager for AT&T who works with disabled high school students, says job-seekers should use interview questions about strengths and weaknesses as opportunities to quickly address how they would deal with their disabilities. But she recommends against dwelling on the disability.

"Simply focus on how you can meet the requirements of the position," Corbin said. "If it’s something that requires an accommodation, be honest about it."

More nonprofit organizations that serve disabled people are setting up as subcontractors, meaning that their clients do outsourcing work.

Goodwill, for example, sorts airplane parts for American Airlines. Dallas’ Citizens Development Center employs 165 disabled adults who do packaging work for clients such as Mary Kay Cosmetics and Baby Magic.

The group’s packaging revenue dropped to $187,000 last year from $850,000 in 2000, but it is renewing a push for contracts as a way to help stem a $350,000 operating deficit, Executive Director Patrick Bricker said.

Others are thinking bigger.

Gary Moore and Dan Selec, longtime Dallas-area information technology executives who have children with autism, are developing a nonprofit, the nonPareil Institute, that would outsource high-functioning adults with autism to work on 3-D animation, gaming and movies and build careers. The employees would train, work and live in a community that Moore and Selec envision for the Dallas area.

The idea emerged from their fear for the futures of their children, said Moore, whose 14-year-old son is a seventh-grader in the Plano school district.

As part of their research, the founders interviewed 50 families who have adult children with autism, none able to get good jobs, Moore said. While sensory and social issues are barriers, high-functioning people with autism have technical skills that can earn a high wage, he said.

"The skills that we’re talking about are very much in demand," said Moore, who left his full-time job to found nonPareil — meaning having no equal — and now does staffing work on contract.

NonPareil is training seven young autistic adults every week at Selec’s home, Moore said.

One, a 30-year-old woman who delivers newspapers to help make a living, has already done a 3-D model of her neighborhood, Moore said.

Within the next several months, nonPareil might be ready to seek its first outsourcing contract, Moore said.

The U.S. jobless rate for people who have disabilities is significantly greater than for people who aren’t disabled.