With salaries lower and unemployment levels higher for people with disabilities, Obama pledged efforts to break down workplace barriers. A key aspect of
that mission will involve the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission(EEOC), which has been hampered by increasing workloads and, until last year, a lack of budget funding.
By Melissa Turley,
® Washington Bureau
President Barack Obama has pledged that his administration will make the employment of people with disabilities a priority.
During the campaign, Obama’s team said the employment rate for people with disabilities is 40 percentage points lower than for those who do not have disabilities,
and that non-disabled Americans earn an average income of $65,400, while those with disabilities make $36,300.
“These dismal statistics offer evidence of severe shortcomings in our country’s efforts to break down the barriers that exclude people with disabilities
and deprive them of true equality of opportunity and independence,” the Obama camp said.
The ADA Amendments Act is designed to help by ensuring people with disabilities are protected against discrimination and are accommodated in the workforce.
But for Obama’s promises to become a reality, he’ll have to invest in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“EEOC is under severe resource constraints,” one EEOC official says. “Because of the work we do, it’s difficult to get funding for some outreach. Unless
there is a real commitment by the White House, there’s only so much that can occur.”
During the Bush administration, the EEOC was “resource starved,” the official says.
It saw its staff dwindle 25 percent since 2001. There are now about 2,100 employees at the commission. In FY 2001, the agency had a $304 million budget
and funding remained pretty level until the EEOC got a boost to $329 million in FY 2008.
But last year’s boost, the official says, has yet to translate into staff despite an increased workload.
EEOC is processing the most claims it has had since opening its doors in 1965. Last year, the commission’s discrimination charges in the private and public
sectors topped 100,000. On the private-sector side, cases increased 15 percent from 2007. And stakeholders agree the six-figure mark will likely be met
again in 2009, especially with the passage of major civil rights legislation in 2008.
“Not only do we have the ADA Amendments Act, which drastically changes what we have jurisdiction over, but we also have the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination
Act,” says Gabrielle Martin, national president of EEOC Local No. 216. “Investigators on the private-sector side of the house will see their workload increase
tremendously. So areas that weren’t enforced, we now have to take them and look at them for litigation.”
Obama pledged to “fully fund and increase staffing” for the EEOC “to reduce charge backlogs and to prosecute efforts to remedy systemic discrimination.”
Maintaining diversity programs and disseminating best practices in hiring and employment are also important.
Those programs include the Leadership for the Employment of Americans with Disabilities, which aims to make the federal government a model employer in this
area — although people with disabilities are the most underrepresented employee group, at less than 1 percent of the federal workforce.
During the campaign, Obama committed to continue efforts by previous administrations to add 100,000 employees with disabilities to the federal workforce.
Such a promise sits well with Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities in Washington.
But he says, another Obama pledge would “touch an even bigger part of the economy.” The president-elect promised to fully implement Section 503 of the Rehabilitation
Act, which requires the government and federal contractors to “take affirmative action to employ and advance in employment qualified individuals with disabilities.”
Disability advocates are awaiting Obama’s decisions for the five-member commission. There is currently one empty seat and Chair Naomi Earp is a Republican,
so Obama may appoint a new head.
Martin says she’d like to see Obama act on the agency leadership and empty seat by this summer. Democratic commissioners Stuart Ishimaru and Christine Griffin
are candidates for the top slot, but Obama could also bring in someone from outside the EEOC. Griffin served as a disability-rights lawyer before joining
the commission in 2006.
Martin says it appears Obama “doesn’t want to see the government treading water” but “serving the public.”
The first order of business for the commission under Obama will likely be regulations implementing the ADA Amendments Act.
Congress charged the commission with creating a less demanding threshold than the “significantly restricts” standard in its current regulations. The commission
voted on proposed regulations in December, but was split among party lines.
Former EEOC attorney and ADA expert David Fram says the commission must be careful to take the middle ground on the new regulations.
“If it takes the disability-rights advocate approach, for example, and says every condition is a disability contrary to what the act says, I don’t think
any court is going to enforce that,” he says.
If the EEOC’s interpretation of the law angers lawmakers, Fram says, its funding could be in jeopardy. Fram recalls an instance about 15 years ago when
the Senate threatened to cut off EEOC’s funding if it didn’t withdraw a proposed rule on religious harassment.
January 21, 2009
Copyright 2009© LRP Publications
Reproduced from http://www.hreonline.com/HRE/story.jsp?storyId=166595132