Long-term telework seen as key to retaining feds with disabilities

Federal employees in many agencies have spent the majority of this year working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

This major shift in workplace culture has forced agencies to rethink a range of daily processes, including conducting virtual interviews with prospective hires and onboarding new employees without having them set foot in an office. Congress and agencies have also looked at the benefits of recruiting remote workforce with in-demand skills that might not otherwise seek out government work.

In this moment of reinvention in the federal workforce, agency officials and lawmakers said the pandemic has opened the door to improving how it recruits and retains people with disabilities. The Office of Personnel Management reported that federal employees with disabilities leave government at a rate three times higher than those without disabilities.

However, the Government Accountability Office found in a recent report that OPM doesn’t track or report retention data on federal employees with disabilities, which makes it harder to pinpoint the root causes of their departures.

GAO in that same report found that agencies went well beyond goals set under the Obama administration to bring more people with disabilities into the federal workforce, but convincing them to stay remains a challenge.

Agencies hired more than 143,000 federal employees with disabilities between 2011 and 2015 — exceeding President Barack Obama’s goal in a 2010 executive order to hire at least 100,000 employees — and agencies hired nearly 80,000 employees with disabilities between 2016 and 2017.

Retention, however, remains a concern. GAO found 39% of employees with disabilities hired during this period stayed on the job less than a year, and about 60% stayed in government service for less than two years.

Given the scope of the challenge, the remedy seems straightforward. OPM before the pandemic recommended agencies publicize workplace flexibilities, including telework, to make their organizations more attractive to candidates with disabilities.

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), the co-chairman of the Bipartisan Disability Caucus and the first quadriplegic member of Congress, said Tuesday that while the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on public health and the economy, it’s also created a “forced experiment” in how the country can equip its workforce to work remotely and be flexible with its employment options.

“COVID is a bad thing, but as an eternal optimist, I’ll also say we need to look at the bright side and see how it’s changed the workforce and how that is going to further open the door of opportunity for people with disabilities — either them working from home or allowing for adaptive, creative work schedules,” Langevin said in a keynote address at the Interagency Accessibility Forum (IAAF).

Former Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said that wider adoption of full-time telework during the pandemic creates employment opportunities for people with disabilities seeking to enter the workforce.

“We know that more and more people are going to be working from home. That opens up all kinds of opportunities for persons with disabilities,” Harkin said.

But the concept of full-time teleworking in the civil service, while commonplace right now, raises long-term questions that the Trump administration has yet to address, such as whether locality pay will remain a fixture of the civil service if federal employees can work from anywhere.

Harkin said fully remote work in the federal government also raises questions about what agencies should consider a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA.

“They need high-speed broadband. A lot of times, persons with disabilities don’t have a lot of money to be able to afford that kind of connectivity, so it seems to me that’s also a reasonable accommodation. And the prospective employer, if it’s a government agency, should be willing to provide that,” he said.

Five years ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, working with the National Telecommuting Institute, became the first federal agency to hire employees with limited mobility that needed to work completely from home.

These hires work in EEOC’s Intake Information Group, which handles calls from federal employees about their equal employment rights and serves as a first point of contact for the public to seek information about filing workplace discrimination charges.

Janet Dhillon, the EEOC’s chairwoman, said the agency has trained its workforce on creating and maintaining accessible documents. But when the agency moved to mandatory telework in March, she said EEOC officials had to ensure videoconference platforms like Microsoft Teams were accessible to its entire workforce.

“We did not always get it right, and I think that one of the most important things about the EEOC’s culture and the way we think about accessibility is that when we don’t get it right, we have people throughout the organization who advocate for accessibility,” Dhillon said. “And yes, they tell us when we fall short of what we need to do to make things more accessible for our employees with disabilities. That’s the way it should be.”

The EEOC earlier this year rolled out a new version of its website with a focus on accessibility to mobile users from vulnerable communities, and through the Technology Modernization Fund, EEOC has launched a major modernization of its integrated mission systems.

“Getting disability access right has to be more than just IT developers or procurement officials working on it. Accessibility has to be built into the fabric of the organization,” Dhillon said.

The project includes a complete overhaul of the agency’s digital systems and legacy systems that will allow the agency to support fully digital services. Dhillon said the new systems will significantly enhance the quality of agency interactions with the public, and improve recordkeeping data security.

To ensure that these new systems meet or exceed the disability standards of the ADA, Dhillon said quality assurance testers trained on accessibility standards are reviewing these IT modernization projects.

These problems aren’t exclusive to the executive branch of government. Langevin said he and his staff recently spoke with the House’s Chief Administrative Officer to discuss accessibility issues with congressional websites that make it hard for some users to access speeches, press releases and other important information.

“We’re not there yet, I’m not yet satisfied that digital accessibility has reached the level that it needs to reach yet, but we’re working on it. It’s a priority for the Congress, it’s a priority for me and the Disability Caucus,” he said.

Harkin encouraged IT companies that do business with the federal government to bring in employees with disabilities to make accessibility a core feature of hardware and software that’s deployed within agencies.

Looking at possible legislative action, Langevin said Congress should look at incentivizing federal contractors to hire employees with disabilities.

“If there’s an advantage given to contractors, companies that have met a certain threshold of hiring people with disabilities, I like the idea of giving an advantage to that company,” he said.

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