Watchdog: Disability hiring still lags

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Despite a two-year-old executive order, the federal government is not making significant progress in increasing its ranks of disabled employees, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

President Obama ordered the government in July 2010 to hire 100,000 employees with disabilities over the next five years. The GAO report, released May 25, criticized the two agencies charged with overseeing the project: the Office of Personnel Management and the Labor Department.

In particular, OPM has neglected to include all setbacks in its required reports to the White House, has not yet implemented disability hiring training programs for agency officials and is relying on questionable data to measure progress, GAO said.

Under the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, an employee is classified as disabled if he or she possesses “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

Of the 66 agency plans for increased disability hiring submitted to OPM for review, representing more than 99 percent of the federal civilian executive branch workforce, only seven met OPM’s 13 criteria, according to GAO. More than half of all agency plans met eight criteria or fewer.

Of the plans, 29 did not include numerical goals for hiring, while nine did not identify the senior official who would be in charge of the hiring initiative.

“Although federal agencies have taken the first step by submitting action plans to OPM for review, many agency plans do not meet the criteria identified by OPM as essential to becoming a model employer of people with disabilities,” GAO said in its report.

The watchdog agency looked at a sample of plans from four agencies: the Education and Veterans Affairs departments, the Social Security Administration, and the Office of Management and Budget. Of the four, only VA had a plan that met OPM’s criteria.

OPM sent strongly worded feedback to all agencies in June 2011, with specifics on where the disability hiring plans were lacking, as well as several reminders in the following months. Yet as of April, 32 of the 59 agencies with incomplete plans had not yet addressed the points of concern -- and OPM did not fully report this to the White House.

Nevertheless, OPM expects all agencies to begin implementing their plans immediately, even the incomplete ones, according to GAO.

OPM does not project the government is on track to meet its disability hiring targets, but the numbers might be better than they appear. Based on data collected from voluntary disability disclosure forms included in job applications, OPM estimates the government hired 20,000 disabled employees in the fiscal 2010 and 2011. Disability advocates, however, believe this is an undercount because some employees will choose not to disclose their status for fear of workplace discrimination.

To address this problem, Labor has plans to promote voluntary disability disclosure with a marketing campaign. OPM is considering using data other than voluntary disclosures, such as information on disabled veterans hired under separate authority, to augment its statistics.

A major inhibitor to achieving hiring goals: Executive training still lags, GAO found. OPM has been developing its training modules since as early as December 2010, yet they still are not ready to implement -- their projected completion date is now August 2012.

GAO recommended OPM better incorporate information about agency disability hiring plan deficiencies in its reports to the president. The watchdog also recommended OPM speed development of its training programs and assess the accuracy of its disability hiring data, including finding other ways to get disabled feds to voluntarily disclose their status. OPM agreed with the recommendations.

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