by Patricia Shiu
From the Editor: One of the most moving presentations at the 2014 National Convention to come from a governmental official was presented by the head of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance, part of the United States Department of Labor. The crowd was quite moved by what she said, but she wanted more than emotion—she clearly came to urge that we stimulate America’s economy by going out and getting jobs, that we take advantage of the new hiring goals promoted by the administration, and that we use her office to see that blind people are given a fair chance at good jobs. Here are her remarks as they were heard on July 4, 2014:
Thank you very much, Marc, and happy Independence Day, everyone. Today we don't just remember a revolution. Today we issue our own call to action. My name is Pat Shiu, and I am here to recruit you!
Yesterday the Department of Labor announced that 288,000 jobs were added to the US economy in June. That's the fifth straight month in which we have added more than 200,000 net jobs. Ladies and gentlemen, that's the best stretch of job creation since the Clinton administration.
So I am here to recruit you because our economy is growing. Jobs are coming back, and I want all qualified workers to compete for those jobs—including people who are blind, people who are deaf, people who run on prosthetics or roll in wheelchairs, and especially people who have been discouraged from applying for far too long. To them and to you I say, "The water is warm. Come on in."
For the past four years my colleagues and I have been making the case to lawmakers and employers that we have a serious problem in America: that the laws designed to ensure equal opportunity for workers with disabilities aren't working; that a nation in which four out of five workers with disabilities are so discouraged by their employment prospects that they've given up on even looking is a nation in crisis. We made our case effectively and, thanks to the leadership of President Obama—who campaigned on a promise to address this crisis—we did something about it. On March 24 a new rule went into effect that calls on companies with federal contracts to achieve a 7 percent employment goal for qualified workers with disabilities in every job category and across their workforces. Now we can start counting and measuring and really checking to see which employers are taking their affirmative action obligations seriously and which ones are not.
So I've come here to Orlando to recruit you—and the communities you represent—to the American labor force. We need you. We need the skills, the talents, the ingenuity, and the hard work of millions of qualified individuals with disabilities who want a chance to succeed, an opportunity to contribute, and a means to sustain themselves and their families.
Today we celebrate our Economic Independence Day. I am honored to have this opportunity to speak with all of you. On behalf of President Obama and Secretary Perez, I congratulate you on this convention, and I thank you for your advocacy on behalf of the blind. I especially want to thank National Federation of the Blind President Marc Maurer and your executive director and advocate-in-chief John Paré for inviting me and for their leadership of this organization. Marc and John and the entire NFB team are champions for the more than fifty thousand members of this organization. I am grateful for their support—and your support—of our work at the Labor Department.
We are the department of good jobs for everyone. We are the department of opportunity for all. For more than a century we have held firm to our mission of preparing the workforce of tomorrow while ensuring that today's workplaces are safe, healthy, fair, and accessible. And key to that mission is economic independence. Economic independence doesn't mean that we don't rely on each other. It doesn't mean we don't help each other or that we don't build structures, both public and private, to support our mutual aspirations. Government is not irrelevant to the process. But nor are we the only player. The very best solutions to our common challenges require partnership among government agencies, private employers, community advocates, academic institutions, and working families.
I believe economic independence is ultimately about freedom: freedom from artificial barriers that impede our ability to live and work; freedom from prejudice and discrimination that diminish us as people; and freedom to pursue happiness, and to do so on our own terms.
These are freedoms I have worked to advance for my entire career. Before I joined the Obama administration, I spent twenty-six years as a civil rights lawyer, advocating on behalf of students and workers who simply wanted a way in the door and a chance to succeed. My clients with disabilities wanted the ability to go to school, to get a job, to know the dignity and self-worth that come from doing meaningful work. Understanding those aspirations was a perfect precursor to my current job.
In 1965, a year after the Civil Rights Act became law, President Lyndon Johnson signed an executive order requiring companies with government contracts to build workforces that reflect the diversity of the taxpayers funding those contracts. Almost a decade later Congress and President Nixon expanded that mandate to include people with disabilities and specific groups of veterans. Enforcing those laws is our job at the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. Yes, it is a long and cumbersome name, but it's also a pretty apt descriptor of what we do.
The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) is a civil rights agency in the Labor Department tasked with protecting workers, promoting diversity, and enforcing the laws which require companies that profit from taxpayer dollars to prohibit discrimination and to take affirmative action so that all workers get a fair shot and a fair shake in the workplace. We enforce those laws for the benefit of the nearly one quarter of American workers who are employed by or seek jobs with companies that receive about $500 billion in federal contracts and subcontracts.
My position is pretty simple: being a federal contractor is a privilege, not a right. The price of that contract is compliance with our civil rights laws. In other words, diversity and inclusion programs are not optional. They are required. And OFCCP exists to enforce those requirements.
Strong, effective enforcement begins with good policy. And when I arrived at OFCCP, I found that many of our regulations were sorely outdated and in need of updates. That was especially true when it came to the regulations implementing Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act, known as VEVRAA.
As I mentioned earlier, our updates to the Section 503 and VEVRAA regulations became effective on March 24, after an extensive and highly inclusive rulemaking process that took almost four years. We developed two rules with a specific set of interests in mind: first and foremost, to improve employment opportunities for qualified workers with disabilities and protected groups of veterans, including veterans with service-related disabilities; second, to update antiquated provisions in the existing regulations, including aligning them with the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 and its revised, much broader definition of disability; third, to provide businesses with real metrics by which to measure their affirmative action efforts; fourth, to give my investigators a tangible way to evaluate compliance with the law when they review contractor establishments; and fifth, to facilitate the success of both workers and businesses by increasing the access employers have to a large, diverse pool of qualified workers whose talents may have been overlooked or left untapped for too long.
I want to spend a few minutes talking about two key aspects of the rules.
First, you should know that these rules are historic because they set—for the first time ever—targeted goals for the employment of veterans and individuals with disabilities in the contracting workforce. These goals are similar to the metrics that have long been used to measure progress in hiring women and minorities.
I believe that what gets measured gets done. To that end, the Section 503 rule establishes an aspirational, 7 percent utilization goal for the employment of qualified individuals with disabilities in each job category of a contractor's workforce.
The VEVRAA rule establishes a national hiring benchmark—currently 7.2 percent—or a more flexible option employers can develop using parameters we have laid out. If every contractor subject to these rules were to achieve the metrics we established, nearly 600,000 people with disabilities and 200,000 veterans—including 84,000 veterans with disabilities—would be added to or identified in the American workforce. And that's just in the first year. Consider what a remarkable achievement that would be. And just so we are clear—and because words matter—both the disability goal and the veteran benchmark are aspirational. Contrary to what some observers have said, they are absolutely not mandatory quotas. Rather they are management tools for employers and a way for the rest of us to hold business leaders accountable to doing what they commit to do when they agree to do business with our government.
A goal is a means to an end. It is not an end in and of itself. If the metrics are not achieved, contractors will be expected to examine their employment policies and practices to figure out why. Then they have to come up with specific plans to address any barriers to equal opportunity. Failure of a company to achieve a goal is not a violation in and of itself. But failure to try is.
Another major provision of the new Section 503 rule is the requirement that contractors invite job applicants voluntarily to self-identify as individuals with a disability when they apply for a job. This is in addition to the long-standing requirement that contractors invite new hires voluntarily to self-identify after they receive a job offer. Under the new rule contractors must on a regular basis invite their employees to self-identify voluntarily. After all, disabilities are not static, and a person's status may change over time. I believe that providing workers with multiple opportunities to self-identify voluntarily is a good thing.
When we first proposed these self-identification provisions, I overheard a business consultant speaking to a group of contractors about this issue: "Is OFCCP obsessed?" he asked. "They want us to ask our employees if they have a disability when they apply for the job, after they get the job, and again and again while they are on the job. Workers are going to think we care!"
I felt like yelling out, "Bingo!"
This is how things change. This is how workplaces become more welcoming. You and I know that workers are safer in the workplace when they understand their rights under the law and feel confident that those rights will be protected. In time these invitations to disclose demographic information or to self-identify voluntarily will be seen as inclusive, not intrusive—as a means to promote, not to pry.
And, since it's come up again and again, let me make two points here: The invitation to self-identify is 100 percent voluntary. We have made that explicit on the self-ID form and encouraged employers to make it clear in the context they provide when disseminating the form; and the self-ID form does not ask any worker to disclose what disability he or she may have. There are three options for the worker to check: Yes, I have a disability; No, I don't have a disability; and I don't wish to answer.
This is going to be tough for some employers and for some workers. I get that. And I have always said that operationalizing the Section 503 rule will be a process, not a switch. Some employers will be uncomfortable asking the question. Some workers may be uncomfortable answering it. With time that will change, just as it is changing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. But it won't change on its own. It requires a cultural change that has to be led by the community, embraced by employers, and mandated by the government.
That is why we need to start a revolution. In order for our new rules to have the desired impact, employers have to make a serious effort to achieve the goal. But workers also need to meet them halfway. That's why I need your help to spread the word among your colleagues and across your communities that the voluntary self-ID form is a lever of power. It's a way to gather critically important data and to ensure that every worker is counted. It is a way to show employers that, if they build it, you will come.
Two days ago we marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. The activists and visionaries who fought for that law were willing to sacrifice their very lives in the pursuit of justice. Their sacrifices made us a stronger, more just nation and paved the way for the Rehab Act, the ADA, and many advances in the rights of women, immigrants, the elderly, LGBT Americans, and so many others.
The anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said that we should "never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." Of course she was right, except that it doesn't have to be a small group. It could be a big group. It could be this group. It could be the three thousand people at this convention. It could be the fifty thousand members of the NFB. It could be the fifty-seven million Americans with disabilities.
Progress doesn't happen in a moment. It happens in a movement. Our country needs you to build that movement, to lead that revolution. We need you to be the heroes and she-roes who will get us to the other side. All it takes is for you to bring your whole selves to work, to demand access, and to be counted. I am asking you to show by your example that people with disabilities—obvious or hidden—can ignite this revolution and help us change the culture of our workplaces.
I will promise you this: at OFCCP we will have your backs and stand with you every step of the way. When you check that box and allow yourselves to be counted, you will serve notice that you are a part of our economic growth, that you will share in our collective prosperity, and that you are committed to our common destiny.
Thank you for your time. Thank you for your leadership. Have a safe and happy Economic Independence Day!