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A Conversation With:

Jennifer Sheehy: U.S. Labor Official

Editor’s 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 on Disability.
Jennifer Sheehy/Tom Olin
Independence Today recently spoke with Sheehy on a range of issues concerning jobs and government programs. The following are excerpts from that interview:

Q: What are your responsibilities?

A: It's my job to shine a disability lens on the U.S. Department of Labor’s 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 in employment.

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 job?
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.

Most 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.

Jennifer Sheehy/Google Images 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?

A: 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 collaborative policymaking.

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 department’s 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 channels.

These platforms include: subscriber email lists; DOL’s 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 home page.

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 (CDE).

Held every October, NDEAM is a national campaign that raises awareness about disability employment issues and celebrates the many and varied contributions of America’s workers with disabilities.

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, it’s 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.

 

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