Contractors Get Carrot for Hiring, Retaining Disabled People

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By Paige Smith

Federal contractors now have an incentive to make disability inclusion a workplace priority: two years of freedom from audits by the Labor Department’s enforcement agency.

The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs on Oct. 5 proposed an award to recognize federal contractors who facilitate opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

The agency’s regulations establish a 7 percent goal to “recruit, hire, promote, and retain” individuals with disabilities, under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Contractors must meet a number of requirements to be considered for the award, including the retention of an affirmative action plan, a lack of unresolved compliance audits, and an absence of “adverse decisions by a court,” like the Administrative Review Board or administrative law judge, the proposal said.

The payoff is considerable: a two-year moratorium on being subjected to an agency compliance audit.

“The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and the Office of Disability Employment Policy are excited to partner together to recognize federal contractors who go above and beyond,” DOL spokesman Edwin Nieves told Bloomberg Law.

Preaching to Choir?

Award or not, most contractors won’t be scrambling to apply, Ogletree Deakins attorney T. Scott Kelly told Bloomberg Law.

Many contractors are too busy “trying to grapple with all of the other regulatory requirements OFCCP has out there,” Kelly said.

The award could set the gold standard for how employers foster disability inclusion, but it would most likely only attract contractors who have already prioritized it, he said.

“If they already have these in place, I think we could see some applying for this inclusion award to try to reap the benefits for work they’re already doing,” Kelly said.

Obama Ended Award Programs

Awards haven’t been offered to contractors since the Obama administration rescinded the Exemplary Voluntary Efforts award and the Exemplary Public Interest Contribution Award in 2013.

Contractors could vie for awards during the Clinton administration, Shirley Wilcher, executive director of the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity, told Bloomberg Law. Wilcher was a senior OFCCP official under President Bill Clinton.

The Clinton administration prioritized incentives because they “honored federal contractors who made noteworthy efforts to promote equal opportunity,” Wilcher said.

“We felt it was very important to provide incentives for compliance and more, even while responsibly enforcing the law,” she said. “Contractors actively competed for the honor.”

Wilcher said she is “delighted” to see the return of awards.

Selectees would have to commit to a long-term relationship with the agency. Winners would be expected to create a “peer-to-peer mentoring program” with other contractors and “provide input into the development of technical assistance, outreach, and model practices for use by other employers,” according to a supporting statement published Oct. 5 in the Federal Register.

“It just seems like they’re upping the game of what would be required to win these rewards,” Kelly said. “It would be a lot of work.”

The proposal will be open for public comments until Dec. 4.

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