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SPECIAL REPORT: Disabled Workers May Solve Void in Employment

Disabled Workers May Solve Void in Employment

Business Finds Resource Waiting to Be Tapped


Special to the Business Journal

With their gas-guzzling SUVs, skimpy savings accounts and counter-culture experiences, baby boomers have already left an indelible mark on America.

The boomers’ most lasting legacy, however, may be the employment vacuum they will leave behind as they retire from the work force.

Baby boomers, who make up the majority of the work force, will begin punching out for the last time over the next decade. Making matters worse, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts a 24 percent drop in 25- to 44-year-olds by 2010. As a result many employers may be left scrambling to find skilled workers to keep their operations humming.

Fortunately, the ready-made solution to the problem is available to employers, though few are aware of it or give it the attention it deserves. Replenishing the skilled labor pool will require tapping the most underemployed segment of the population: people with disabilities.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, less that half of non-institutionalized individuals with disabilities in California between the ages of 21 and 64 are employed, compared to 76.3 percent of non-disabled, non-institutionalized counterparts.

The odds of being hired or retained following a disability aren’t much better than the 20 percent odds of being disabled during our working lives. According to the National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research, nearly 80 percent of individuals with disabilities who want to work are unemployed.

Many employers are simply not aware of the options and assistance available to them in hiring and retaining employees with disabilities. Likewise, they may not understand the total cost of disability.

– Hidden Costs Of Disability

It is estimated that in 2000, the total cost of disability accounted for 14 percent of overall payroll, with direct costs (comprised of short-term and long-term disability insurance premium, salary continuation or sick leave, workers compensation, FICA and medical payments) amounting to 6 percent. Indirect costs include overtime paid to other employees (3.2 percent), replacement workers (3.8 percent), and job accommodations (1 percent) amounting to 8 percent.

Short-term disability accounts for approximately 3 percent, and long-term disability about one half of 1 percent of payroll. The remaining cost has a much greater impact on productivity and lost-time costs, and is made up of other types of absences and expenses for temporary help, overtime, training and legal costs.

By learning more about what can be and is being done to reduce the negative impact to the bottom line from disabilities, employers can help maximize their productivity.

Some insurers provide incentives and assistance for employers to return disabled employees to work. For instance, some carriers help pay for accommodations and assist the employer in making them.

Counseling and job placement assistance is often available to employees who have become disabled. And employees who return to work may receive return to work incentives.

The city of San Diego has approximately 173,723 non-institutionalized individuals with disabilities, and San Diego County has nearly 399,500 according to the most recent Census Bureau data. These individuals are and will be a resource for employers seeking to fill the employment void they will inherit from retiring baby boomers, as well as for employers seeking to maximize the productivity of their current work force.

– Businesses Report Increased Productivity

Yet employers may be missing the compelling business case for accommodating their employees with disabilities. The Job Accommodation Network found 54 percent of companies reported increased worker productivity when making accommodations. Twenty percent of accommodations cost nothing to make and the median accommodation cost since October 1992 remains unchanged at $250.

A 30-year study indicates employees with disabilities have above-average records in job performance, dependability, attendance and safety. In addition, employers enjoy “intangible” benefits when they return employees to work following a disability, including improved morale and employee loyalty.

A recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. vs. Williams further challenges the disability insurance industry’s efforts in getting employers to accommodate employees who are trying to return to work.

In Toyota vs. Williams, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Jan. 8 that the inability to perform a limited set of manual tasks related to a specific job does not constitute a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor indicated the specific limitation would have to restrict the individual from “performing tasks that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives in order to meet the ADA’s definition of disability.”

O’Connor gave household chores, bathing and brushing teeth as examples of important manual tasks. The opinion also required that the impairment be permanent or long-term.

Toyota successfully accommodated employee Ella Williams for two years after her initial diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome. They expanded her job requirements and Williams developed a new set of upper extremity symptoms that prevented her from working. She requested to return to her previous job structure but was denied.

Insurers constantly ask employers to incorporate similar accommodations. The Supreme Court would describe these accommodation requests as connected to a “limited class of manual tasks related to a particular job.” Employers may revise their ADA policies and procedures related to accommodation for newly disabled employees in light of this case.

Toyota v. Williams didn’t examine, however, that employees with disabilities have the same productivity levels as the general working population. Employees with disabilities also have a better than average safety record, and lower rates of absenteeism and sickness.

Yet this untapped pool of skilled labor remains one of the largest minorities and most stereotyped groups in America.

Group disability carriers can provide employers with additional information on how to make the most of these resources by dispelling myths and stereotypes, providing education on the types and costs of accommodation, and implementing a disability program designed to maximize resources and productivity.

Harnett is a clinical physiologist and the director of wellness and ability management at The Hartford.


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