A Conversation With:
Jennifer Sheehy: U.S. Labor Official
Editors note: This is the first of a two-part
interview by John M. Williams. The second will be printed in the next edition
of Independence Today.
Jennifer Sheehy of the U.S. Department of
Labor has been the acting assistant secretary of labor for disability
employment policy at the agency since March.
In her 15 years in government, Sheehy has
tackled disability-related issues as director of policy and planning in the
Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), as acting
director of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research
(NIDRR), as acting deputy commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services
Administration and as special assistant to the assistant secretary of OSERS.
She was the senior policy advisor of the
Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities and also
served a stint as associate director in the White House Domestic Policy
Council. Before that, she served as vice president of the National Organization
Independence Today recently spoke with Sheehy on a range of issues
concerning jobs and government programs. The following are excerpts from that
Q: What are your responsibilities?
A: It's my job to shine a disability lens on the U.S. Department
of Labors mission, advising the Secretary of Labor and internal agencies
on how departmental policies impact people with disabilities. I also lead the
Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), overseeing strategic planning
and performance management for a number of policy initiatives to increase
opportunities for youth and adults with disabilities to prepare for and succeed
Q: Since Barack Obama has been
president, I have received several thousand emails and scores and scores of
calls from veterans with disabilities and non-veterans with disabilities. Their
main goal is jobs. What does the DOL do to help people with disabilities get a
A: Employment opportunities for veterans is a key priority of
the administration. And there is no question that our nation's service members
deserve a return to civilian life that respects their sacrifices and honors
their right to live full, productive lives. My colleagues in DOL's Veterans'
Employment and Training Service manage a number of programs designed to assist
veterans in securing employment, and ODEP and VETS partner frequently to ensure
that we address the employment needs of veterans with disabilities. For
example, ODEP helped develop the agency's "America's Heroes at Work Veteran's
Hiring Toolkit," which is designed to assist and educate employers who have
made the proactive decision to include transitioning service members, veterans
and wounded warriors in their recruitment and hiring initiatives.
of DOL's job and training opportunities are administered by our sister agency,
the Employment and Training Administration (ETA), so I encourage you to check
out their website at www. doleta.gov. And ETA is the force behind another DOL
resource I want to mention, which is our nationwide network of American Job
Centers, or AJCs.
AJCs offer a broad range of employment services, free of charge.
People with disabilities seeking employment, including veterans, should
definitely access their local AJC, and when they do, they should be sure to ask
if they have a disability resource coordinator. This is a person specifically
focused on improving education, training and employment (including
self-employment) opportunities for youth and adults with disabilities who are
unemployed, underemployed and/or receiving Social Security disability benefits.
You can locate your nearest AJC online by going to www. servicelocator.org.
It's important to point out that my agency, ODEP, does not offer job-
matching services for people with disabilities. Rather, we are a policy agency
that works to influence national policy and promote effective workplace
practices to ensure that today's workforce is inclusive of people with
disabilities. We promote access to not only jobs, but also to the training and
supports necessary for people with disabilities to prepare for, secure and
succeed in employment. We work to raise expectations, because we believe
strongly that youth with disabilities, like all youth, must grow up expecting
to work and succeed, and parents, educators, service providers and employers --
as well as public policy -- must reinforce this expectation at every turn.
Q: Is there a coordinating role for
federal agencies to help people with disabilities get jobs?
Many agencies administer programs that provide a variety of services and
benefits to individuals with disabilities: the Social Security Administration,
Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of
Justice, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, just to name a few! These
and other programs often intersect around the topic of disability employment.
And I'm happy to say that ODEP collaborates frequently with our federal
partners to ensure cross-agency collabora-tion on employment topics such as
youth with disabilities in transition, veterans, transportation, health care,
aging workers, substance abuse and more.
Our role is to review policies across
federal agencies and develop, test and promote policies to improve employment
outcomes. We frequently participate in, and often chair, interagency working
groups on these very issues -- because as we see it, effective policymaking is
Q: Are there tools that DOL has
that it can leverage to help people with disabilities get jobs. For example, if
you know a company has positions open but is not hiring qualified people with
disabilities, can you refuse to continue to work with the person?
A: If you're referring to
regulatory incentives designed to encourage employers to hire and advance
people with disabilities, then yes. The departments Office of Federal
Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) enforces Section 503 of the Rehabilitation
Act of 1973, Executive Order 11246 and the Vietnam Era Veterans
Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 (VEVRAA). As amended, these three laws
prohibit those doing business with the federal government, both contractors and
subcontractors, from discriminating in employment on the basis of sex, race,
color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity,
disability or status as a protected veteran.
Now, as you may know, in March 2014, the
Labor Department updated its regulations implementing Section 503 and VEVRAA,
which specifically require federal contractors to take affirmative action to
employ people with disabilities, including veterans. In a nutshell, the new
rules strengthen these requirements by establishing -- for the first time ever
-- real metrics against which employers must measure the success of their
efforts. ODEP was proud to assist OFCCP in developing these rules.
The rule establishes for contractors an
aspirational 7 percent utilization goal for the employment of individuals with
disabilities. OFCCP created this goal to give contractors a yardstick against
which they can measure the success of their efforts to reach out to and recruit
individuals with disabilities. More specifically, contractors are being
encouraged to use the goal to measure the change in the representation of
individuals with disabilities in their workforce. But, to be crystal clear
about one thing, neither the disability goal under Section 503 nor the veteran
benchmark under VEVRAA is a quota.
As our colleagues in OFCCP like to say,
failure to achieve a goal is not a violation. Failure to try is. The rule is a
management tool for employers and a way for the rest of us to hold business
leaders accountable for doing what they commit to do when they agree to do
business with our government. And we have already heard great reports from
several companies that implementing strategies to be more inclusive has paid
off in higher morale and benefits to all employees.
To us, these rules represent a historic
advance for people with disabilities -- especially when you consider that
federal contractors employ one in every four workers in America.
Q: How does DOL promote its
programs to benefit people with disabilities?
A: The best program or resource in
the world means nothing if people don't know about it. So education and
outreach play a key role in what we do. Our customers include employers, other
federal agencies, state agencies, service providers and individuals. The
department promotes its programs through technical assistance, public education
campaigns and by disseminating information via a number of communications
These platforms include: subscriber email
lists; DOLs social media channels on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and
Instagram; and our blogs -- all of which frequently promote ODEP's programs and
services. People can easily subscribe to these via DOL's website, www.dol.gov.
And then there are ODEP's many
communication channels, which include our website, our weekly ODEP News Brief,
a monthly column for employers called Business Sense, and an email subscription
service. You can subscribe to all of these via our home page, www.dol.gov/odep.
Our reach is extended through the broad
education and outreach performed by the ODEP-funded technical assistance
centers. These include the Job Accommodation Network, the Partnership on
Employment & Accessible Technology, the Employer Assistance and Resource
Network, the LEAD Center and our National Collaborative on Workforce and
Disability for Youth. You can connect with all of these groups right on ODEP's
And perhaps the most visible of our
public education efforts are two national campaigns: National Disability
Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) and the Campaign for Disability Employment
Held every October, NDEAM is a national
campaign that raises awareness about disability employment issues and
celebrates the many and varied contributions of Americas workers with
The CDE is an ODEP-funded outreach effort
to promote the hiring, retention and advancement of people with disabilities.
It conveys a simple message: that at work, its what people can do that
matters. And it's a great example of effective partnerships in action.
John M. Williams coined the term assistive
technology. His website address is www.atechnews.com.