Contractors With Vocational Rehab Ties Needn't Fear OFCCP Proposal, Speakers Say

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By Lydell C. Bridgeford

Federal contractors with strong ties to vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies should not fear efforts by the Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs to strengthen affirmative action requirements for people with disabilities, a panel of federal contractors said Dec. 7 at an employment conference co-sponsored by the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR).

The council is made up of the chief administrators of public rehabilitation agencies in the United States that serve individuals with physical and mental disabilities.

OFCCP in December 2011 proposed a complete revision of its compliance requirements for Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act (typically referred to as the “503 regulations”). The stricter standards call for contractors to establish a 7 percent national utilization goal for each job group in a contractor's workforce for hiring people with disabilities. The proposal also seeks to establish new data collection requirements for recordkeeping, job listing, and outreach efforts (236 DLR AA-1, 12/8/11). The proposal has been met with strong opposition from many in the federal contracting community, who argue that the standards are unachievable and too costly (101 DLR A-1, 5/24/12).

The panel's moderator, Kathleen West-Evans, director of business relations of CSAVR's National Employment Team (NET), asked the federal contractors on the panel whether there was any trepidation or fear within their organizations because of OFCCP's attempts to overhaul the Section 503 regulations.

Bob Foley, manager of the Wounded Warrior Project at Raytheon Co., a federal defense contractor, said he was not concerned about the OFCCP revising contractors' requirements for hiring disabled people. “The agency is our partner,” he explained. “They have a role to play and serve as a catalyst. Everybody needs a nudge now and then.”

OFCCP Stresses Linkage Agreements
Under the proposed rules, contractors will have to enter into a minimum of three written, formal linkage agreements for purposes of recruitment assistance or development of training opportunities for people with disabilities.

The proposals on linkage agreements may help large federal contractors with multiple establishments get a better grasp on their outreach efforts across the whole organization, Foley said. If promulgated, the proposed rules will push federal contractors into more relationships and opportunities in partnering with the VR community, he predicted.

For example, one linkage agreement must be with a local vocational rehabilitation agency or an employment network organization listed in the Social Security Administration's Ticket to Work Employment Network Directory. For the second agreement, the contractor would work with a local disabilities group, an organization affiliated with the DOL-funded Employer Assistance and Resource Network, or an educational institution.

The third linkage agreement would involve an organization that assists disabled veterans with employment opportunities.

Many employers are risk averse and are unwilling to take the steps to partner with a VR agency, Foley observed. In his opinion, the proposed 503 regulations offer the federal contracting community a framework for recruiting and hiring people with disabilities.

The panel speakers stressed the importance of working with NET and its affiliates, as well as other nonprofit organizations that can assist and support federal contractors with hiring disabled individuals. VR agencies can provide contractors with technical assistance on outreach efforts to employ disabled workers that align with OFCCP's compliance requirements.

'Not Afraid of the OFCCP'
“I am not afraid of the OFCCP because some of our best job candidates out there are coming from VR agencies and programs,” said Rick Laferriere, a manager of workforce initiatives at CVS Caremark Corp., the nationwide drugstore chain. Laferriere works closely with the counselors and job-placement specialists at the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission to fill pharmacy technician positions in the state. He said that position has a high turnover rate and training costs are high, but noted that the referrals from the commission who are employed as pharmacy technicians are still with the company.

“The federal contracting status is new to CVS Caremark, and resulted from the merger between CVS and Caremark, which added the pharmacy benefit management component to our enterprise,” explained Leslie Reis, a senior manager of workforce initiatives at CVS. Since the company is fairly new to OFCCP requirements, the experience can sometimes be daunting, but “we are getting there,” Reis observed.

For instance, the company recently made some changes to its application process to improve its information on applicants, she asserted. “You don't know where you are going or where you have been, unless you track.”

The linkage agreements themselves are not new to the retail chain operator, but the terminology is, Reis said, remarking that the first time she heard the term “linkage agreement” was at this conference. At CVS Caremark, such agreements are called memorandums of understanding, she explained.

The purpose of the MOU is to lay out the respective obligations and responsibilities of the VR agency and the company to ensure “everyone is on the same page,” Reis explained. For example, in the case of pharmacy technicians, the agreement would state that the agency will provide the company with quality candidates who will then complete their training experience in the store pharmacy to earn their certification.

A typical agreement also would explain that the store will not displace any current employees in light of the partnership, and include language that the agreement is in compliance with Labor Department regulations. Reis said the company has hired people with disabilities as a result of its partnership with NET and other agencies.

Addressing the issue of determining which applicants have a disability, and are thus covered under Section 503, Reis said some job applicants and new employees disclose their disability while others decide not to reveal that information. “For us, it doesn't matter if they disclosed or not, because we are looking for talented individuals that can add to our organization and help us grow as a business,” she added.

HR Executive Says VR Agencies Can Deliver
Hitting hiring goals on disabled workers “doesn't happen overnight and it's not expensive. But it does take time,” Oswald “Oz” Mondejar, vice-president of human resources, community relations, and communications at Partners Continuing Care, a Massachusetts-based health care provider, told attendees.

Mondejar said contractors should realize that building partnerships and trust with vocational rehabilitation agencies is time-consuming, but the rewards are amazing, especially if their organization is slated for an OFCCP audit.

He described an OFCCP audit of his establishment about three years ago. “We were one of the first hospitals to be audited in the system. The hospital did fairly well in the audit, but I am not saying we had everything tied up in a neat bow,” he said. The hospital's audit was a success because his team was able to articulate and show evidence on how the team took proactive measures, including working with VR agencies, to recruit from a talent pool that is not always viewed as a traditional diversity group.

“The hospital is a federal contractor, but we are also a community-based employer and we want to reflect the community in which we serve,” Mondejar said.

Rules Revision Has Support
“There are many businesses out there that are not afraid of the OFCCP because they are doing great work in hiring, retaining, and promoting people with disabilities,” said Jill Houghton, executive director at U.S. Business Leadership Network (USBLN), an organization representing employers that seek to create and maintain employment opportunities for disabled workers. USBLN supported OFCCP's efforts to modernize the 503 regulations. The group filed comments on the 503 proposal that offered “constructive feedback on how to make the regulations help us to move the needle on the employment of disabled workers,” she added.

“The proposal calls for a 7 percent utilization goal. The OFCCP says it's not a quota,” West-Evans stressed. The challenge with assessing a utilization goal is determining what the disability workforce looks like, given that some individuals in that workforce may not want to disclose their disability.

West-Evans said she is pleased with OFCCP's focus on linkage agreements. She suggested that simply posting job announcements with referral agencies may not necessarily be putting people with disabilities to work. The VR community, however, “has direct access to the largest talent pool of people with disabilities,” she added.

The conference, held in Arlington, Va., also was sponsored by the George Washington University National Technical Assistance Partnership and the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind.

By Lydell C. Bridgeford

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