US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions

Harkin Opening Statement at HELP Committee Hearing, “Stay-at-work and Return-to-work Strategies: Lessons from the Private Sector”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

*As Prepared for Delivery*

“Our topic today is ‘Stay-at-work and Return-to-work Strategies:  Lessons from the Private Sector.’  This is the latest in a series of hearings we have convened since last March to explore issues that impact the employment of people with disabilities in America.  Of course, our goal is to boost the labor force participation for people with disabilities.  To achieve this goal, we must create pathways for people with disabilities to join the labor force, and we must help Americans with adult-onset disabilities get the supports they need to stay employed.

“Over the past four years, we have seen the devastating impact of the economic recession on people with disabilities.  Thankfully, we are seeing a turnaround in the employment for the general population, with new jobs being created each month and the unemployment rate decreasing for the country as a whole.    

“However, that has not been the case for people with disabilities.   While the unemployment rate for the general public has decreased by a full percentage point from February 2011 to February 2012, during the same time period the unemployment rate for people with disabilities has risen by almost half a percentage point from 15.4% to 15.8% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Moreover, the number of Americans with disabilities participating in the labor force has gone down by more than 500,000 workers since the recession began in 2008. 

“One of the ways to address this stubborn problem of unemployment and underemployment of people with disabilities is to make sure they don’t leave the labor force if they already have a job, and to make sure that those who acquire disabilities can remain in their jobs.

“How important is it to keep people who acquire a disability working?  Well, the Social Security Administration estimates that one in four of today’s 20-year-olds will develop a disability sometime before they retire.  We cannot afford to lose that amount of our workforce and all of the knowledge, experience and expertise those workers represent.

“Today we have asked a number of representatives from the private sector to share with us strategies to keep people at work or to help them return to work.  We know that a complex array of factors – social, medical, psychological, and workplace practicalities – come into play when an adult acquires a disability.  We will hear about the supports that employers can provide in terms of accommodations and adaptations to the work environment.  We also will hear about how employees, employers, family members, as well as health and medical professionals can work together to keep people in their jobs or to return quickly to their jobs.

“I want to point out one concern that I hear about often when a person with a disability is returning to work.  That is the cost of making accommodations for that individual.  Contrary to popular belief, the cost of making workplace accommodations for people who have acquired a disability is very low and often nothing at all.  In 2006 the Job Accommodation Network conducted a study of almost 1,200 employers and found over 50% of the workplace accommodations that were needed to have people with disabilities hold a job cost nothing!  No new investments of expensive equipment, no fancy workstations.  Changes in routines and procedures often sufficed to make the job accessible to a person with a disability.  When a cost was involved, the study found that, in most cases the cost of the accommodation was less than $500.

“We look forward to learning more about how these types of accommodations and other strategies in the workplace can keep people at work who acquire disabilities or help them return to work.

“In order to learn about these strategies, we have a panel of five expert witnesses this morning.  They include Tom Watjen, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Unum Group; Christine Walters, of the FiveL Company, an independent employment consultant and author; Karen Amato, Director of Corporate Responsibility Programs for SRA International, Inc.; Eric Buehlmann, a lawyer, former staffer for Senator Jim Jeffords, and current Deputy Executive Director for Public Policy at the National Disability Rights Network.  In the interest of full disclosure, I want to note that Mr. Buehlmann is the son of a member of the HELP Committee staff, and his mother has recused herself from working on this hearing in light of her relationship with the witness.  And then, finally, we have Ken Mitchell, Managing Partner of theWorkRx Group, Ltd with us.  Welcome to you all.”

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