New Trends in Employment: Women, Minorities and Immigrants, Older Employees, and the Physically Challenged
WOMEN, MINORITIES AND IMMIGRANTS, OLDER EMPLOYEES, THE PHYSICALLY CHALLENGED
The economy of the United States went through dramatic changes in the 1990s. A recession at the beginning of the decade was followed by a robust business environment. The beginning of the twenty-first century has seen a slowdown in the economic growth rate of the late 1990s. American businesses face challenges as the composition of the American workforce continues to change. Businesses must adapt to those changes in the new century. Women, despite their growing numbers in the workforce, have yet to make significant strides in the area of corporate leadership. Battle lines are forming between minorities and immigrants over available jobs. Our workforce continues to age. People want to work longer, but some in the corporate world still don't recognize the hidden resource in older employees. In addition, a majority of physically challenged people in our country are still not employed. These challenges exist when times are economically rosy or bad. They will not go away. They cannot be ignored.
One of the most significant social and economic trends in modern U.S. history was the increase in the proportion of women who were working or looking for work during the latter decades of the twentieth century. By April 2006, women made up approximately 46.2 percent and men made up 53.8 percent of the labor force. In the same month, 59.1 percent of women age sixteen and older participated in the labor force; 56.4 percent were employed. Women are projected to make up 46.8 percent of the labor force by the year 2014.
Women are the primary wage earners in 17.4 million U.S. families, more than double the number thirty years ago. Families with two working parents have become the majority. In 2005 husbands were the sole workers in only 20.2 percent of married couple families; in 6.5 percent of married couple families only the wife worked. The proportion of married couple families in which both the husband and wife were employed was 51.3 percent. In 61.3 percent of married couple families with children both parents worked. In 2005 70.5 percent of all mothers with children under eighteen were in the labor force, up from 47.4 percent in 1975, although the proportion of mothers in the labor force has been declining since 2000, when it was 72.3 percent. Among mothers with children younger than a year old, over half (53.8 percent) were in the labor force.
During the United States' involvement in World War II (1941–44), women entered the workforce in large numbers to support their families as well as to
Bonnie Williamson has worked in publishing for more than twenty years. She was speech writer for the former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Transportation and served as public information officer with the New Jersey Senate for five years.
support the war effort, filling jobs left by men who joined the military service. After the war's end, the number of women working for pay dropped significantly. By the 1950s, married women who had jobs usually remained in the workforce only until the birth of their first child. They then left their jobs and stayed at home, at least until their last child was in school. When they reentered the workforce, they found themselves far behind men in terms of pay and seniority, who had been continually working their way up the employment ladder. Times have changed. Most of today's mothers with infants were already well established in the marketplace before they had their newest child. Many retained their jobs by taking only a brief period of maternity leave.
The changes our society has experienced over the past few decades encourage, if not require, women to work. Birthrates are lower, but there are more single mothers. Many women are delaying first marriages and childbearing. One out of two marriages ends in divorce. More people are living together without getting married. Levels of education are now identical for women and men, with about 30 percent of both men and women in the labor force holding college degrees, Higher levels of education mean a higher potential for earned income.
In 2002, 10.1 million, or 46 percent, of U.S. businesses were owned by women, according to the Center for Women's Business Research (http://www.cfwbr.org/nationalnumbers.html). As of 2004, that number had grown to an estimated 10.6 million women-owned firms in the country. This accounts for nearly half of all privately held firms in the country. These women-owned businesses employ more than 19.1 million people. The estimated growth rate in the number of women-owned firms (17 percent) was nearly twice that of all firms (9 percent).
Women's earnings over the past twenty years show a mixed picture of progress. In 2004 about three-fifths (59.2 percent) of women sixteen years of age and older were in the labor force. Their median weekly earnings were $573. However, as economist Mary Bowler has observed, women's earnings did not keep pace with men's in all demographic groups. The gender gap was largest for white workers, middle-aged and older workers, and those with only high school diplomas. Women's inflation-adjusted earnings increased by 27 percent during the same period, while men's real earnings increased by only 1 percent. Still, while women's earnings improved relative to men's, the income of full-time working women in 2004 was only 78.6 percent of the income of men. The good news is that women with college degrees have seen their earnings shoot up 34.4 percent since 1979. For women with a college degree, the median weekly income was $832 in 2003, and $860 in 2004. Yet the income disparity between men and women is even more pronounced at higher education levels. Women with professional degrees make even less relative to men with professional degrees (64.8 percent) than women with high school degrees make relative to men with high school degrees (75.7 percent).
On the whole, women are beginning to make themselves known in formerly male-dominated fields. The proportion of women physicians and surgeons in the United States grew from 7.6 percent in 1970 to 29.4 percent in 2004. In addition, 30.4 percent of workers in production occupations, 1.8 percent of carpenters, 3.2 percent of construction laborers, and 12.4 percent of construction and building inspectors are women. A larger proportion of employed men than women belong to (and enjoy the benefits of) unions. Only about 11.1 percent of employed women belong to unions, down from 14.6 percent in 1983; 13.8 percent of employed men belong to labor unions, down from 24.7 percent in 1983.
Women doubled their managerial positions from 20 percent to 36.7 percent from 1972 to 2004; in 2004 women held half of all management, professional, and related occupations, earning a median income of $799 per week. This is due, in part, to women's increased educational opportunities. In 2004 nearly 33 percent of women age twenty-five to sixty-four held college degrees, compared to approximately 11 percent in 1970. Women still, however, remain highly overrepresented in lower-paying clerical and service positions. For example, 93 percent of registered nurses are women while only 29.4 percent of physicians and surgeons are women. About one-half of women work in sales, service, and administrative support, compared with about one-fifth of male workers.
Women in Leadership Roles
Despite all of their past accomplishments in the working world, women still have a long way to go in breaking the barriers that keep them from becoming corporate leaders. In 1986 an article in the Wall Street Journal popularized the term "glass ceiling" to describe the invisible barriers that women confront as they approach the top of the corporate ladder. The Federal Glass Ceiling Commission was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1991. The commission's mandate was to identify barriers that have blocked the advancement of women and minorities, as well as the successful practices and policies that have led to the promotion of these populations into decision-making positions in the private sector. The commission's survey of senior-level managers in Fortune 1000 and Fortune 500 service industries showed that women comprised less than 2.5 percent of total employment in the top jobs in the private sector. Only two women were CEOs (chief executive officers) in Fortune 1000 companies.
By February 2005, that number had grown. But when Carly Fiorina resigned as CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co. that month, she left only seven female CEOs at the nation's Fortune 500 companies. The percentage of female corporate officers at Fortune 500 companies had risen to 15.7 percent in 2002, up from 12.5 percent in 2000, according to a survey by Catalyst, a nonprofit women's research group in New York. By 2006 that number had declined to 14.7 percent. The number of Fortune 500 companies that had 25 percent or more women board directors increased almost six times over, from eleven in 1995 to sixty-four in 2005. Catalyst's studies also reveal that more new women are being recruited into the boardroom each year. Despite these heartening numbers, however, a press release from early 2006 announced that at the current growth rate, parity between women and men on corporate boards might not be reached for another seventy years.
Some industries had much higher concentrations of female officers than others. The two industries with the highest percentage of women were diversified financial companies, with 31 percent, and the apparel industry, with 28 percent. The textiles industries and what Catalyst classified as "mining/crude oil production" companies had no female corporate officers. In 2002, although women held 15.7 percent of the corporate officer positions in the Fortune 500, fewer than one-third of women held positions that had responsibility for profit and loss operations. Even fewer, 7.9 percent, held titles in the highest ranks of the company, executive vice president and above. Studies show that in 2005, food and grocery wholesalers, petroleum refining, and telecommunications held the highest percentage of women directors.
In 2003 only 5 percent of women earned $1,500 or more per week, compared with 12 percent of men. A ten-year study of Stanford University's 1982 class of MBA graduates found that men were more likely than women to work in the upper echelons of business. Sixteen percent of the men were CEOs compared with 2 percent of the women; 23 percent of the men and 10 percent of the women were corporate vice presidents; and 15 percent of the men and 8 percent of the women were directors.
How can companies be encouraged to promote women into executive positions? The Glass Ceiling Commission's study revealed that if corporations realize it's good for business, promotions will accelerate. A rating of the performance of five hundred companies based on factors relating to the advancement of women and minorities demonstrates that it's definitely good for business. Companies that rated in the bottom one hundred earned an average of 7.9 percent return on investment, compared to an average return of 18.3 percent for the top one hundred. Lower employee turnover costs are also a motivating factor. A report published by Ortho Pharmaceuticals said that a yearly savings of $500,000 was made mainly from the lower turnover among women. The commission found that women appear to be advancing fastest in industries with relatively high growth, those undergoing change with regard to regulation, and those highly competitive and dependent on marketing and flexibility.
Women and Child Care
Child care remains a thorny issue for women. Despite the fact that more women now work full time, family still remains, for the most part, their responsibility. Increasing numbers of the nation's six million companies are providing day care facilities for their employees' children. The government also provides aid to low-income families. In fiscal year 2005, the federal Child Care and Development Fund, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, made available $4.8 billion to states to help low-income families, families receiving temporary public assistance, and families transitioning from public assistance to obtain child care so family members could work or attend training or education programs to help them in the workforce. Nationally, more than 1.8 million children receive subsidized childcare funded through the Child Care and Development Fund each month. However, past data suggest that federal efforts fail to meet current demands.
Many employers are moving away from the traditional nine-to-five workday and are responding more to the needs of their employees, especially those with families. Hundreds of companies have adopted the concept of flextime, letting employees begin and end the workday earlier or later than the norm. Allowing employees to telecommute—work at home with personal computers—is also becoming an option for many companies. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2004, 26.7 percent of women and 28.1 percent of men who worked full time had flexible schedules, although only about one in ten were enrolled in formal flextime programs. In addition, the technology research firm Gartner, Inc., reports that 82.5 million Americans worked from home at least once a week in 2005. That number is expected to increase to 100 million by 2008. Flextime and telecommuting are two options that employers can use to better respond to the needs of workers with children.
MINORITIES AND IMMIGRANTS
Disturbing trends are developing for minorities and immigrants in our country. High immigration quotas have created what writer Norman Matloff calls a caste system among U.S. minorities, with Asian immigrants at the top, African Americans on the bottom, and Hispanic immigrants in the middle.
Despite the current growth in our country's economy, there still are not enough jobs. One Harvard University study found that a 10 percent increase in immigrant populations reduces immigrant wages by 10 percent. Another problem is language. Many immigrants who had professional jobs in their homelands are forced to take low-skilled jobs in the United States because of poor English skills. This increases the number of workers looking for such jobs and subsequently lowers wages. An increasing number of low-skilled immigrants are competing among themselves and with native workers in the United States for low-skilled jobs, a sector that has not grown in the last thirty years, according to George Vernez of the RAND Corporation. A study by the Urban Institute found that despite an ability to get jobs, immigrants entering the United States have a lower average income and use more welfare per capita than U.S. natives.
In regions where there are high numbers of immigrants, low-skilled jobs in hotels, restaurants, and airports that were once held by African Americans are increasingly filled by immigrants who are willing to work for a lower wage. A study by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that starting in the mid-1970s, employers in the Los Angeles area deliberately and systematically fired unionized black janitors and replaced them with lower-paid immigrants.
African Americans and other minorities may find life in the working world more difficult for yet another reason: challenges to affirmative action. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson issued Executive Order 11246 prohibiting federal agencies from contracting with firms that were not committed to equal opportunity "affirmative action," that is, conscious and deliberate efforts to bring qualified people of color and women into jobs and educational opportunities from which they had been traditionally excluded.
From this affirmative action concept, programs have developed at many levels of government, including the federal government, that are known as "set-aside" programs. These award a certain percentage of contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses. These programs were developed to remedy the effects of past discrimination, and to address the difficulties these firms faced in competing with larger, more established firms for government contracts. Minority businesses are often newer and smaller and have difficulty competing with older, larger businesses that know the process and can afford to make lower bids. Acquiring government contracts can be a very complex and confusing endeavor for businesses unfamiliar with the process. Government agencies, especially those of the federal government, are often slow to pay their bills, so businesses frequently have to borrow money to bridge the gap between the delivery of goods and services that must be paid for and the time it takes the government to pay them.
While the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet declared the use of racial classifications unconstitutional, it has ruled them suspect and subject to strict judicial scrutiny. As a result, set-aside programs came under increasing attack in the 1990s and early 2000s.
In the 1989 decision City of Richmond v. Croson Co. (488 US 469), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Richmond, Virginia, city ordinance that reserved 30 percent of city-financed construction contracts for minority-owned businesses. The Court ruled that the ordinance violated equal protection because there was no "specific" and "identified" evidence of past discrimination, "public or private," against the Richmond Minority Business Enterprise in city contracting. The majority opinion, written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, also noted that the city had failed to "narrowly tailor" the remedy to accomplish any objective other than "outright racial balancing." The opinion further stated that it was a "completely unrealistic" assumption that a 30 percent assignment to minority business enterprises in a particular trade would be a fair representation of the community.
In a similar case, a white-owned company, Adarand Constructors, sued the government claiming the company's failure to receive a government contract because of racial preferences had violated the owner's right to equal protection under the Fifth Amendment. In 1989 the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a contract for a federal highway project to a construction firm, which in turn subcontracted the job to a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise in compliance with the Subcontractor Compensation Clause. In 1995 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peña (515 US 200), expressed doubt in the validity of the affirmative action programs, based on the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act of 1987 (PL 100-17) that channeled $10 billion per year in construction contracts to women- and minority-owned businesses. The court, citing the need for stricter and narrower standards in determining racial preferences when awarding contracts, returned the case to the district court for review.
These Supreme Court decisions have brought many set-aside programs under scrutiny. In June 2000 a federal court, in Associated General Contractors of Ohio v. Sandra A. Drabnik, decided that the Ohio state program to set aside 5 percent of state construction projects for minority-owned businesses was unconstitutional. Even though that court had upheld the state's program in 1983, subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions required the federal court to apply a more stringent standard of judicial review, no longer allowing legislatures to use "implicit fact finding of discrimination" to justify racial preferences and affirmative action programs like set-asides.
Shifting Population Diversity
The full effects of the current anti-affirmative action trend have not yet been felt, but some patterns are emerging. California's Proposition 209 (passed by referendum in 1996) is a sweeping ban on affirmative action. Since then, affirmative action policies in higher education admissions and for minority and women-owned businesses have been challenged (though ultimately upheld) by the Supreme Court, and affirmative action for minority businesses continues to face bureaucratic as well as political opposition. While current law sets a goal of 5 percent of all contracts awarded to minority businesses, the federal government has failed as a whole to meet these numbers. Part of the situation can be attributed to the way the federal government is doing business. Federal agencies generally bundle contracts into huge deals that are too large for small minority firms to handle.
Regardless of the current travails facing America's minorities and immigrants, one fact is clear: the Census Bureau projects that by the year 2050, half of the population of the United States will be made up of non-Hispanic whites and half will be made up of people of color. In the twenty-year period between 2000 and 2020, the United States nation will grow from 282 million to 336 million people, and most of that growth will come from immigration. Most immigrants will be arriving from South and Central America and South and East Asia. Our country's population will be increasingly diverse in the future, and corporations must deal effectively with America's changing face if they are to survive.
It pays for businesses to meet the needs of immigrants and minorities. In the United States, Asians, blacks, and Hispanics collectively represent more than $500 billion a year in consumer spending. Recognizing cultural differences within the market can put more money in a business's pocket. By targeting advertising, hiring bilingual sales people, and holding special events, a Miami Toyota dealer gained more than 50 percent of the local Hispanic market and its sales increased 400 percent over a six-year period. On the West Coast, a San Francisco Volkswagen dealership credited improved sales to Asian and Pacific Islanders for a fivefold increase in overall sales per month. Salespeople learned through cultural sensitivity training that among Chinese Americans, family elders are often the ultimate decision makers for major purchases. Taking steps such as learning about different cultures and initiating mentor programs to help immigrant and minority employees succeed in corporate cultures ultimately makes good business sense.
With technology developing at such a rapid pace, we must have a well-trained and well-educated workforce to compete in global markets. Unfortunately, some minority groups are underrepresented in both higher education and in occupations that require the most training and pay the best salaries. In 2003, while 66.2 percent of white, non-Hispanic recent high school completers enrolled in college, only 58.6 percent of Hispanics and 57.5 percent of African Americans did. College completion rates were even more divergent. In 2003, 34.2 percent of non-Hispanic white twenty-five- to twenty-nine-year-olds had completed a bachelor's degree; however, only 17.5 percent of African Americans and 10 percent of Hispanics had done so.
Minorities are also underrepresented in occupations that require post-secondary education. While 34.7 percent of all workers are in management, professional, and related occupations, only 26 percent of African Americans and only 17 percent of all Hispanics are in this relatively well-paid occupational group. While 20.3 percent of all workers are in professional specialty occupations, only 16.5 percent of African Americans and 9.9 percent of Hispanics are in those occupations.
The United States is experiencing a severe shortage of trained scientists and engineers. Steps are being taken to encourage minorities and immigrants to enter science and engineering fields. One of the leading programs is the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME). This program was devised by fifty-five science and engineering schools and sixty-five corporations and research labs, and since 1980 has supported more than seventeen thousand minority students. The organization offers scholarships to minority students seeking master's degrees in engineering and fellowships to those seeking doctoral degrees in engineering and science. NACME awarded scholarships to 746 students in the 2004–05 academic year, a 41 percent increase over the previous year. Other organizations that help in this effort include the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. Companies seeking minorities for technical positions have included TRW; General Dynamics Corporation; Hercules Aerospace, Inc.; and Ball Aerospace Systems.
By 2020, most of the baby boomers will be over sixty-five, once considered the benchmark age for retirement. More than 54.6 million Americans will be classified as senior citizens, up from 35.1 million in 2000. Many of those people will still want to work and need to work to survive economically.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2004, 15.6 percent of the labor force was aged fifty-five and older; that percentage is projected to increase to 21.2 percent by 2014. Three-fourths of workers ages fifty-one to sixty-one say they would like to continue working beyond the traditional retirement age of sixty-five, according to the Health and Retirement Survey sponsored by the National Institute of Aging. Studies have also found that people with more years of schooling are most likely to continue working after age sixty-five.
Federal regulations implemented over time will raise the normal retirement age for full Social Security collection from sixty-five to sixty-seven. The growth in Social Security benefits over the past thirty years has made early retirement more affordable, but federal budget deficits may prohibit such growth from continuing. A tight budget environment may also affect Medicare, the health insurance program for the elderly. All of these elements may compel older workers to delay retirement, even if they don't wish to do so. As the life expectancy of the average American approaches eighty years, more and more people will live fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five years after they retire.
Long-term care insurance could become a frequently requested benefit. Socalled old-age diseases will require adequate insurance coverage for vision care, hearing loss, arthritis, and cancer. During the recent downsizing by many businesses, midlevel and senior management positions were the first to go. The longer-tenured employees had the highest salaries. In the future, employers may consider linking pay with performance rather than seniority. Employers currently find that employees in their forties and fifties are more expensive to keep than hiring new employees in their twenties and thirties. However, as the baby boom generation begins to retire, employers may find themselves keeping older workers instead of considering them a liability.
There is no question that in the coming decades, millions of older skilled and experienced workers will exit the workforce. Many employers will find it necessary to alter their employment practices and pension plans to induce some of those who would otherwise retire completely to remain on the job, perhaps on a part-time or part-year schedule. This is referred to as phased retirement. Employers want Congress to amend the tax code to allow them greater flexibility in designing phased retirement programs for their employees. One proposed amendment would permit pension in-service distributions to employees who have not reached the pension plan's normal retirement age. Employers say this would allow them to offer older employees the chance to cut back their work schedules to part time while supplementing their reduced salaries with pension income.
In many industries, computers have reduced the physical demands of holding a job, so it makes sense for older workers to keep their skills current. Many older workers have what are called "bridge jobs." They don't leap from full-time employment into total retirement. For instance, many act as consultants to their employers after they retire from full-time employment.
Job banks are offered through states and corporations for those fifty-five and older. Temporary agencies actively seek older workers. Temporary jobs can range from office work to helping other elderly people. The National Older Worker Employment Partnership is a national advocacy organization for older workers. A unit of the National Council on the Aging, it provides technical assistance, information exchange, training, and a forum for discussion of issues for older workers.
There are many myths about older employees that lead employers to believe that older employees will retire early. However, older Americans will make up a significant percentage of the population in the coming decades. Because the number of workers twenty-five to fifty-four years old is expected to increase by only 3.4 percent between 2004 and 2014, while the number of older workers is expected to increase by 49.1 percent, an older workforce will be in demand.
Recruiting and Retraining Older Workers
Employers might want to consider adopting a strategy to recruit older workers. Traditional benefits and enticements may not be appropriate. One good plan is to offer accommodations for older workers. Amplified telephones, large-print documents, orthopedic and ergonomic furniture, and wellness programs would help older workers perform their jobs well. Age issues should be included in diversity training programs for employees. This would help reduce intergenerational conflicts. The key is to provide a wide range of options to both employers and older employees. Properly managing older workers is just another way for industry to master the growing diversity of the labor force. Older workers can be utilized as mentors to pass on their knowledge and skills to other employees.
Some employers have the perception that older employees cannot adapt to new technologies. However, Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada reports that there is no difference in the ability of old and young workers to adapt to new technology, and that limited training essentially levels the playing field for workers of all ages. According to the American Association of Retired Persons, half of what workers need to know today to do their jobs will probably be obsolete in ten or twenty years. To be effective, employers should conduct training programs in a nonthreatening, noncompetitive environment so that employees can learn at their own pace. One operator of several hotel chains offers a three-week training course for seniors. The $1.5 billion hotel company routinely turns to older applicants when it needs new hires for its 4,000-employee reservations system. About 10 percent of its sales agents who work out of eight centers across the United States and Canada are at least fifty-five years old, and another one-fourth are between forty and fifty-four. The company finds that older workers are dependable, loyal, and punctual and that they possess a strong work ethic. Chicago-based McDonald's Corporation also has special recruitment programs for older workers.
However, age discrimination is still a problem that older workers face. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was enacted by Congress in 1968 "to promote employment of older persons based on their ability rather than age; to prohibit arbitrary age discrimination in employment; to help employers and workers find ways of meeting problems arising from the impact of age on employment." The act originally protected workers between the ages of forty and sixty-five. Later amendments first prohibited mandatory retirement before age seventy and then outlawed it altogether. A 1991 amendment dropped a two-year statute of limitations on age discrimination lawsuits, allowing broad recourse to virtually all middle-aged and elderly workers. In 1993 tenured college professors and police officers, who had once been exempted, were given protection. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) office in Washington received 16,585 age discrimination complaints in fiscal year 2005. Age discrimination continues to represent a significant proportion of complaints filed with the EEOC.
THE PHYSICALLY CHALLENGED
There are over thirty-three million Americans with disabilities who are between the ages of sixteen and sixty-four. Of those, eleven million have a type of physical disability. Twenty-one million people, nearly two-thirds of the disabled population, have an employment disability. When a physical injury causes permanent disability, it can cost the state, insurance companies, or family members at least $750,000 to support a disabled person for life from the time of the injury. Government programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, and food stamps pay out more than $20 billion per year to unemployed people with disabilities. When a person with a disability wants to work but cannot get a job, all of society loses.
In 2004 only 35 percent of the disabled population was employed full or part time, compared to 78 percent of people without disabilities, according to the National Organization on Disability/Harris Survey of Americans with Disabilities. Three times as many Americans with disabilities were living in poverty, with annual household incomes below $15,000, the survey found. Such polls also indicate that most disabled individuals want to work. However, incorrect perceptions, unfair employment practices, accessibility barriers, and technology deficits still stand in the way.
In 1990 one of the most far-reaching and beneficial pieces of legislation to help the physically challenged become self-supportive became law. It was the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA was designed to make jobs and public facilities more accessible to people with disabilities. It is illegal for a company to fire or refuse to hire someone because that person has a disability unless the disability would prevent the individual from performing the basic function of the job. Employers must improve access at the worksite and provide accommodations for people with disabilities. A company is not required to make changes that would place an "undue burden" on the business, however.
The law applies to people with physical disabilities as well as those with mental illness, AIDS, and obesity. Originally, the law's ban on employment discrimination against people with disabilities pertained only to companies with twenty-five or more workers. The threshold is now fifteen or more employees. The change has caused a 150 percent increase in the number of companies affected by the law. According to the EEOC, 666,000 businesses now come under the ADA.
Following the ADA came the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act, which establishes Protection and Advocacy (P&A) Systems to empower, protect the safety of, and advocate on behalf of persons with developmental disabilities. P&As act as independent agencies within each state to protect the legal and human rights of the physically challenged. In 2004 P&As and Client Assistant Programs provided advocacy services to more than 7,500 people, training to over 65,000 people, and information and referrals to almost 50,000 people. P&As helped adults with developmental disabilities secure jobs, encouraged businesses to employ this population, intervened on behalf of the disabled in cases of ADA employer discrimination, assisted persons with developmental disabilities to have homes of their own, and favorably resolved abuse complaints. In March 1998 the Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities was implemented to create a coordinated and aggressive national policy to increase the employment rate of the physically challenged.
As employers feel the pressure of tight labor markets and repercussions from the ADA, they may find themselves more motivated to hire people who are physically challenged. Many employers may believe, however, that they cannot afford to buy the devices necessary for an individual with a severe disability to get the job done. The reality is that the cost of technology that enables such a person to work is falling. More than ten years ago, voice recognition technology cost about $10,000. Today the application and computer for such technology can be purchased for $2,000 or less. For $100, voice recognition software is available, and the top-end program Dragon NaturallySpeaking Professional is about $700.
New technology is continually being developed. Microsoft, Apple, IBM, and other technology companies are focusing on making their mainstream products accessible to people with disabilities. A Department of Labor fact sheet states that more than half of accommodations cost nothing, and of those accommodations that do cost money, the typical expenditure averages $600.
Accommodations for employees who have disabilities can be as simple as hitting a switch to run an electric stapler or copy machine. Raising an ordinary desk or worktable on blocks may allow the user to move his or her wheelchair up to the work area to work comfortably. Specially designed workstations, including those that can be raised and lowered mechanically, are now available. Moving equipment from one side of a workstation to the other may be all that is necessary.
A variety of devices that can be used with telephones to amplify hearing and speech are already on the market. Rubber-tipped pens and pencils bound to the hands of employees with disabilities can give them the ability to use computers. Raised lettering or braille symbols on signs and elevator buttons can assist employees who are visually impaired. Switches that can be operated with one's mouth or a head stick or even by rolling a wheelchair across a strip on the floor can be installed.
Numerous resources are available to employers and to the physically challenged to assist both in dealing with the challenges of the workplace. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) was established by the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities in 1984. In 1991 the service of JAN was expanded to provide public access information to businesses and services needing to comply with the ADA. JAN is an information and consulting service that provides individualized accommodation solutions to inquiries about enabling people with disabilities to work. In addition to its database of more than twenty thousand specific accommodations, JAN can also provide employers with specific resources to assist in solving difficult or unique accommodation adaptation problems.
The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services of the U.S. Department of Education funds pilot-supported work programs in selected states. These programs can be used as an alternative vocational rehabilitative tool. In supported work programs, job coaches work with several individuals with handicaps who are placed in private sector employment settings with nonhandicapped workers. The job coaches typically provide six to twelve months of extensive training and actually perform the job where necessary.
At the state and local levels, employers and employees can contact their state governor's committee or local mayor's committee on employment of people with disabilities, as well as occupational therapy departments at local hospitals. Colleges and universities are yet another source of information on programs for people with disabilities. For example, the MEED (Microcomputer Education for Employment of the Disabled) program is a comprehensive business computer training program that enables unemployed physically challenged adults to become microcomputer (PC) applications specialists. The program awards up to forty-one college credits toward an associate of science degree in the computer science discipline through Miami-Dade Community College in Miami, Florida. The principal objectives of the program are to train people with severe physical disabilities in a variety of practical microcomputer software skills. MEED has had a strong partnership with local corporations and businesses. It has its own business advisory council, and more than one hundred corporate executives are personally involved with student activities ranging from financial and equipment contributions to field trips, internships, mentor programs, employment opportunities, and classroom instruction. MEED was the first private-public partnership to offer comprehensive personal computer software applications training for adults with disabilities. Since its inception in 1986, MEED has trained more than 150 individuals. Twenty-six adults with disabilities completed the program in 2004. Approximately 80 percent of MEED participants have achieved competitive employment within South Florida businesses.
Local efforts also include the work of organizations such as Calidad Industries, a subsidiary of Goodwill Industries of the Greater East Bay, in Oakland, California, which strives to place disabled individuals in government-agency, skilled-labor, and food-service occupations. Cheryl Sudduth, a special-needs advocate at Calidad and winner of Working Mother magazine's Maverick Award in 2005, has put together a network of volunteers so that when a prospective employer voices concerns about needing a sign-language interpreter, for example, she can solve the problem by providing a volunteer to do the job.
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