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Labor Department asks contractors to step up hiring of disabled workers

Specific target of 7 percent seen as more effective than ‘good faith effort.’

The Labor Department on Friday will propose requiring federal contractors and subcontractors to increase their hiring of employees with disabilities, mandating a specific goal of 7 percent.

"This proposed rule represents one of the most significant advances in protecting the civil rights of workers with disabilities since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act" in 1990, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in an announcement. "President Obama has demonstrated a commitment to people with disabilities. This proposed rule would help federal contractors better fulfill their legal responsibility to hire qualified workers with disabilities."

The proposed rule planned for the Dec. 9 Federal Register spells out actions contractors must take in recruitment, training, record-keeping and policy dissemination. The steps are much like those long required for hiring women and minorities. The rule is designed to strengthen the affirmative action requirements established in Section 503 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, according to the Labor Department. The announcement noted that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 13 percent, or one and a half times the overall jobless rate.

"For nearly 40 years, the rules have said that contractors simply need to make a 'good faith' effort to recruit and hire people with disabilities. Clearly, that's not working," said Patricia Shiu, director of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which also enforces the 1974 Veterans Readjustment Assistance Act. "Our proposal would define specific goals, require real accountability and provide the clearest possible guidance for employers seeking to comply with the law. What gets measured gets done."

Under the rule, contractors would have to improve their data collection and self-reviews of affirmative action and "reasonable accommodation." They also would have to adjust their lists of job openings to widen their applicant pools.

Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president for national security and procurement policy at the contractors group TechAmerica, said: "Goals are nice, but the government ought to find a way to incent companies to do a better job. Direction from the Labor Department could drive that." Hodgkins suggested that agencies evaluating competing bids could reward contractors that demonstrate that they have disabled people in their workforce.

The coming rule was welcomed by Mark Perriello, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of People With Disabilities. "Promoting job opportunity for people with disabilities is a top priority for our community and must be a top priority for our nation," he said in an email. "People with disabilities across this country are proving ourselves to be valued and highly productive employees in every industry. By providing government contractors with clear expectations about hiring individuals with disabilities, this proposed rule not only promotes opportunity for Americans with disabilities, it provides employers an opportunity to diversify their workforces and to take advantage of a large pool of outstanding job seekers."