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

In Advance of Senate Vote, Harkin Urges Senate Colleagues to Support Bipartisan, Bicameral Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

WASHINGTON, D.C.—In advance of a Senate vote on the bipartisan, bicameral Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), one of the lead Senate authors of the legislation, spoke on the floor to urge his Senate colleagues to support the legislation.

The proposal, which was released by a bipartisan group of leaders from the House and Senate in May, would improve federal workforce development laws that have been overdue for reauthorization for over a decade. Dozens of labor, business, disability advocacy, and workforce development leaders have endorsed the legislation and urged Congress to pass it promptly. See the current list of supporters here.

“Access to education, training, and employment services is critical to helping our workers secure good jobs, gain access to the middle class, and become economically self-sufficient.  This bill will help us achieve these goals and represents the best of what Congress can accomplish when we work together,” said Chairman Harkin.

As the Senate leader on policy issues impacting people with disabilities, Harkin spearheaded the effort to make important and long-overdue updates to the Vocational Rehabilitation Act (VR), included as part of WIA. The bill emphasizes competitive integrated employment as the first and best choice for people with disabilities and directs 15 percent of VR funds to assist with transitioning young people with disabilities to the workforce. It increases pre-employment transition services to include experience in competitive integrated settings through internships, part-time jobs and summer jobs, and requires state VR agencies to presume all individuals with disabilities who want to work can do so with the appropriate supports and services.

“Despite the enormous progress we have made in ensuring that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as those without disabilities, the sad fact is that they have an unemployment rate that is twice as high, and a workforce participation rate less than half that of the general population,” added Harkin, who is the Senate author of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. “We have failed to ensure that people with disabilities meaningfully participate in the workforce. This bill takes major steps to correct this injustice, and will help to prepare a new generation of young people with disabilities to prepare for, obtain, and succeed in competitive, integrated employment.”

A one-page summary of the legislation can be found here. The statement of managers, including a section-by-section summary of the legislation, can be found here. A summary of key improvements WIOA makes to current workforce development programs can be found here. The text of the bipartisan, bicameral agreement can be found here.

The text of Chairman Harkin’s speech, as prepared for delivery, is below.

“I am pleased to join with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and in both chambers, in taking up the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), a reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA).

“As Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, I have worked on this bill for five years. I would like to express my appreciation to Senators Murray, Alexander, and Isakson, for their partnership on this bill and their assistance in advancing it through the Senate.  I must also acknowledge and thank my good colleague and the former Ranking Member of the HELP Committee, Sen. Enzi for all of the work he did to move this reauthorization forward.

“I also would be remiss not to thank our House colleagues who have worked closely with us over the last six months to reach this agreement, Representatives Kline, Miller, Foxx, and Hinojosa.  During six months of negotiations, we reached a compromise between the reauthorization bill the House passed in 2013, and the reauthorization bill the Senate HELP committee marked-up in July of last year. I think we have hit the sweet spot. This bill has broad support, from employers to mayors, to governors, to organized labor.

“The time for reauthorization is now. As our economy continues to recover from one of the worst economic recessions in our history, it is more critical than ever that we stand with our nation’s workers, our young people, our citizens with disabilities, and our businesses with a commitment to help them prosper.

“Our economy has undergone substantial changes since the first WIA bill in 1998. At that time, we were in a period of widespread economic growth during which Americans at all income levels were seeing improvements in their economic well-being.  But truth be told, that period was unique in the last 40 years. In fact, over the last 40 years, America’s backbone—the middle class—has been finding it harder and harder to make ends meet as wages have stagnated and costs have risen.

“This bill is part of the solution to this challenge facing our middle class.  Access to education, training, and employment services is critical to helping our workers secure good jobs, gain access to the middle class, and become economically self-sufficient.  This bill will help us achieve these goals. 

“This new bill includes provisions that support our state workforce development systems in providing employment and training services for adults, dislocated workers, and youth through state grant programs and the public employment service.  It also supports disconnected youth through programs such as an updated youth program focused on out-of-school youth who need a second chance, Job Corps, and YouthBuild.  It provides for employment and training activities for Native Americans and Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers.  It also supports adult learners through adult education and literacy programs, including services for English language learners.

“The bill includes innovative approaches to providing workforce development activities, including industry and sector partnerships; on-the-job and incumbent worker training; transitional jobs strategies for those with poor work histories; and workplace learning advisors who can help educate colleagues about services available in the workforce system.

“Most importantly to me, this bill includes a much needed update to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  As a champion for individuals with disabilities, I am particularly pleased that the bill addresses the disproportionate burden of unemployment and underemployment experienced by people with disabilities.  

“Despite the enormous progress we have made in ensuring that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as those without disabilities, the sad fact is that they have an unemployment rate that is twice as high, and a workforce participation rate less than half that of the general population. We have failed to ensure that people with disabilities meaningfully participate in the workforce. This bill takes major steps to correct this injustice, and will help to prepare a new generation of young people with disabilities to prepare for, obtain, and succeed in competitive, integrated employment. 

“This bill ensures that young people with disabilities will get the experiences they need to succeed in work settings.  Those experiences include part-time work, summer jobs, internships, workplace skill development, and preparation for jobs that are in high demand.  Basically, we are giving persons with disabilities the same supports and experiences that everyone else expects and receives. To obtain those experiences, the bill requires state Vocational Rehabilitation programs to work hand-in-hand with local secondary schools.   The bill also ensures that employers will have the information necessary to recruit, hire, and retain people with disabilities.  And the bill focuses the efforts of state Vocational Rehabilitation on youth, requiring that 15 percent of their funds be dedicated to transitioning young people into competitive, integrated employment. 

“These efforts will directly address the high unemployment rate among people with disabilities, smooth the transition of young people with disabilities into the competitive, integrated workforce, and help employers to support their employees with disabilities.  I am especially proud of these provisions.  And I thank my colleagues for working with me to make this bill one that will address the outrageous status quo facing people with disabilities with regard to employment.

“This bill represents the best of what Congress can accomplish when we work together.  As Chairman of the Senate HELP Committee, I have worked diligently with my colleagues to find areas of agreement where we could advance legislation on a bipartisan basis.  When this bill passes the Senate, WIOA will mark the 18th bipartisan HELP bill to successfully move through the Senate in this Congress.  And, when it passes the House and is signed by the President, it will be the 14th bipartisan HELP committee bill enacted into law during this Congress. 

“House leaders have indicated that if the Senate acts swiftly to pass this bipartisan, bicameral bill, without substantial changes, they will do the same and we will be able to advance this bill to the President’s desk immediately.  That’s a major victory for our workers, our businesses, and our economy.  I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting this bill and in voting yes on final passage.”

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