Advancing Disability Employment: A Labor Day Call-to-Action

by Kathy Martinez on August 26, 2010 · 9 comments

Secretary Hilda L. Solis (L) and Kathy Martinez (R) at the Secretary's Round-table held in October, 2009

For many, Labor Day signals the beginning of autumn and the end of summer.  And those of us in the disability arena can look back on the summer of 2010 as an especially momentous one.

In July, the nation celebrated the 20 year anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation passed in the history of this country.

In addition, President Obama signed an Executive Order on July 26 that will help transform the disability employment landscape within the Federal Government.  It calls on all Federal departments and agencies to increase the numbers of people with disabilities hired and to improve retention and return-to-work of Federal employees with disabilities.

While some of us are born with disabilities, many more of us will acquire a disability over the course of our lives, including as a natural part of aging.

A key strategy for employers to retain workers with disabilities is to foster inclusive and accessible environments for all of their employees.  This includes the availability of workplace accommodations and accessible technology, an approach that can increase everyone’s productivity.

The Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) is working on a range of education and policy initiatives designed to address these issues.  Our website features helpful resources for employers, as well as links to free, expert, and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues.  Learn more by visiting the websites of ODEP’s Job Accommodation Network (JAN) and Employer Assistance & Resource Network (EARN).

It is heartening and encouraging to see the Federal Government working to become a model employer of people with disabilities.  I encourage organizations in the private sector to do the same – to step up and be a model employer.  Advancing employment opportunities for people with disabilities strengthens not only America’s economy, but also its ideals.  It creates a more inclusive America where every person is recognized for his or her accomplishments.

Kathy Martinez is the Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy.

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Anonymous
August 27, 2010 at 11:36 am

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1 Gwen Porter August 27, 2010 at 11:00 am

I am so excited about the efforts being made to get disable individuals to work. Coming out of the 20th ADA celebration on a high because of the progress that has been made and the President signing the Executive Order that the Ferderal Government will become a model hiring agency is Awesome. I know of a person that has already submitted information to a VA Hospital and is looking hopeful.
I hope to see the idea moblizie our businesses to get on board to become an inclusive work place and not just on paper including diversity. The efforts can help the businesses jump start more creative efforts for all persons in need of work. We need more on the Job Training and Apprenticeships for the disable persons desiring to work. Let’s Stay Charged. My hats off to Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis’ and Assistant Secretary Of Labor Kathleen Martinez.

2 Sheridan Walker August 27, 2010 at 11:09 am

Go Kathy!!! It is time for companies and agencies to get on board, get educated and hiring the talent and the largest minority that is untapped which is people with disabilities. We are here to assist in the goal in anyway we can!!!

Sheridan Walker

3 Judy Bland August 27, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Ms. Martinez,
I want to take the time to thank you and the ODEP for your continual efforts in changing the way workers with disabilities are percieved and in providing the educative and legislative assistance needed. I am excited about the future and I have followed ODEP since January 2010. The area I see that needs additional attention concerns the educational funding. Even though I qualify for a PEL Grant, I am still responsibile to pay back over 60% of my education costs. I do not mind paying this back and consider myself very blessed to have any help at all. But, I wonder about those that can’t and give up the opportunity because of the outlying costs the grants do not cover.. I myself am concerned over this as well. Thank you all for all you do. It is deeply appreciated.

4 Denise Barnes August 27, 2010 at 2:50 pm

What a great message for Labor Day weekend, not to mention, all year round.
Thank you for your great message, Together, we are driving up employment for individuals with disabilities, including Veterans!

5 Cynthia August 28, 2010 at 1:13 am

I am a person with a disability as I have a learning disability but I am trying to do the best that I can do and accept what I can and cannot do. I have been labeled as a person with a disability and no one wants to hire me as I am to high of a risk to them and I am trying to over come the disability part as I feel that I would be treated unfairly. I had just graduated from college as an Administrator Support Person and that was a big stepping stone for me as I was told that I wouldn’t ever make it to college but I did and this is the biggest complement that I did it and not have anyone say that I can’t do it. I also feel that I want to be given a chance and treated fairly and not a person that sits around and does nothing. thanks and I will sign up and stand up to be counted on such.

6 Lawrence W. Salberg, Sr. August 28, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Miss Martinez,

I am resubmitting this comment because it appears to have been deleted somehow in error.

I read your News Release/Article (“Advancing Disability Employment: A Labor Day Call-to-Action”, dated 8/26/10) with keen interest since now, at age 63, I find myself as one of the individuals you describe that has acquired disabilities in life. I applaud your efforts and would like to share with you just one case – mine – of how “model” an employer the federal government really is.

Because my disabilities are not outwardly apparent, I have found myself the victim of cruel and brutal discrimination WITHIN the federal government sector, suspicious of my every action (or failure to act), despite reams of medical documentation. It has been so intense as to cause me a breakdown while at work, forcing me to leave on 5/20/2010.

How has my (space-age, federally-trained) senior management at NASA’s Langley Research Center responded to my pleas for help, you ask? How have they stepped up to the (higher) bar that President Obama, Secretary Solis, and you have levied?

By:
1. By refusing to grant me Voluntary Leave Transfer Program (VLTP) eligibility in 2009 for myself just because I had taken VLTP leave previously to care for one of three adopted special-needs children with medical and severe psychiatric conditions. He had 10 acute hospitalizations and 8 months of residential hospitalization. Furthermore, my director stated that the purpose of the VLTP is NOT to provide a paycheck when an employee is out of leave!!! What an amazing statement! He further stated that it is only intended to cover the time between when an employee applies for a disability retirement and OPM grants that retirement. As a result of his denial of my 2009 VLTP application I have lost approximately $50,000 and have had to deplete my TSP account in order to provide for my family of five.
2. Despite providing medical documentation to substantiate my absences, NEVER offering me Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave or Reasonable Accommodations on its own – I had to learn of these through a co-worker and demand them.
3. Threatening me with Absent without Leave (AWOL) at every step of the way as though my absences due to my disabilities were culpable on my part. In one particular case, I was actually charged with AWOL when I was severely ill and had told my director that I would try to be to work by (clearly an “estimated) 2 pm, but, due to medications I was taking, overslept and notified him at 3:30 I was still too ill to come to work. He charged me with 1.5 hours of AWOL, knowing full well the severity of my illness (though yet not formally diagnosed).
4. Refusing to grant over half of the Reasonable Accommodations I requested, ALL OF WHICH WERE PRECISELY extracted from specific recommendations from the Job Accommodations Network publications and consultations, thereby forcing me to file an (informal) EEO complaint locally.
5. My director simply dismissing my offers to try to settle things “at the lowest level” and refusing to even consider mediation. This forced me to file a formal complaint with NASA in Washington.
6. After my granting their requested 3-month extension for the EEO investigation, they sent me news that the investigation was “closed” anyway. I would add that, subsequently, after pleas to the NASA’s Director of EEO Complaints Division in Washington, I was permitted to add a brief statement to the Report of Investigation.
7. Though now financially destitute (and having made this known to my management), I have had to hire legal counsel to help me with my case since I am unable to do so myself, now pending in the Charlotte District EEO Office. I would add that the Report of Investigation interviewed only my director – no one else. My immediate supervisor and my deputy director were not interviewed, despite their direct involvement in personnel actions being directed for approximately 9 months by my division director. No other witnesses were interviewed or attempted to be interviewed. The Report of Investigation, in other words, is an incomplete sham.
8. After filing my EEO case, realizing that my director had a personal “ax to grind” with me, I volunteered to quietly “go away” (i.e. transfer to any other position). He ignored my offer. Instead, what retribution or consideration do I get?
a. I get a formal “Letter of Reprimand” for a private meeting with my director during which I pointed out his discrimination and hostile treatment towards me. Never mentioned in this letter (which will stay in my OPR for two years) is ANY reference to any of my disabilities.
b. I get a notice of Unsatisfactory Performance and placement on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), despite being told repeatedly (previously) that my work is outstanding (as evidenced by a 40+ year career as a licensed professional engineer. Again, never mentioned in this letter is ANY reference to any of my disabilities. I filed an administrative grievance with the Langley Center Director over this action which was totally ignored. When I finally followed up 3 months later, I received an email from the director of OHCM that the matter was not “grievable”.
c. As if that wasn’t bad enough, my director then ramps up my workload where I was having to work 60+ hours per week (against medical advice) to try to meet the conditions of my PIP.
d. He then accused me of poor time management and working on things management didn’t want me to work on (I am a GS-14 Safety Engineer with broad responsibilities to investigate safety issues); this, at a time when Langley is the subject of a huge safety investigation of electrical power system hazards – my precise specialty. Could it be that he did not want me investigating anything that would detract from the multi-million dollar “New Town” rebuilding effort? After all, though “New Town” may give a few nice new buildings to NASA’s oldest field center in the Agency, it does nothing to the core electrical power system infrastructure that is antiquated, dilapidated, and hazardous.
e. He then demands that I account for my time to him in 15-minute intervals and obtain management approval to work on anything he doesn’t want me to work on if it will take more than 30 minutes. Supposedly this would last for one week. After one week, it did not meet his approval, so he demanded another week. This, coupled with relentless criticism in my weekly review meetings, led to my breakdown.
9. Realizing that my hostile work environment was severely deleterious to my health, my doctors began advising me in May 2009 to transfer to another position with management more understanding of my disability limitations. Though I offered to leave in February 2010 (see above – ignored by my director), I unwisely chose to wait until May 2010 to make that final formal Reasonable Accommodation request. First I was harassed by my director that my medical documentation was out-of-dated. I then obtained new documentation (dated June 2010). He then denied it simply because reassignment is to be the “accommodation of last resort”. What last resort was he waiting for?
10. Under strict medical orders not to return to his hostile work environment, I have had no other choice but to apply for disability retirement – an option suggested by my director in Fall 2009. This is now in process. It’s sad, because I would have hoped that an agency as progressive as NASA would be keen to “retain valuable workers with disabilities”, as you cite.
11. Charging me with AWOL, instead of Leave without Pay (LWOP), for this interim period while my disability retirement is being processed.
12. I have again applied for VLTP (July 2010) since I have now applied for disability retirement, meeting the conditions cited by my director. Stating that because he “needs my services”, he replied by granting me VLTP but ONLY for the period of my FMLA leave since 5/20/2010 through 8/12/2010, when he states my FMLA expired (and, of course, I am out of leave). What happened to the disability retirement criteria he previously cited??? (See #1 above)
13. Finally, I have repeatedly appealed to the Langley Research Center Director with both personal requests and administrative grievances (the latter being a total waste of time). She refuses to get involved and simply defers the matter back to same person who is doing the discrimination!

Yes, I am very frustrated and, with each of his punitive actions against me, my conditions are severely worsened. I am now often bedridden many days, unable to function except for a few hours a day – all a direct result of his actions. I think of Secretary Solis’ statement that everyone who wants to work should have the opportunity to do so. Although I now have disability limitations, that’s my wish, too.

I truly believe (based on my discussions with others at NASA) that there are many others who have been mistreated by titular “Gods” like my director who thinks he is above government rules and regulations

My plan was to work for NASA for many years but, as this situation has brought about my retirement prematurely, and having only joined the federal government in 2005, I don’t have enough service time to get anything in the way of a disability retirement. The financial implications are serious for me with three children still at home (ages 11, 12, and 14). It’s sad but I’d have to say that I had much better consideration and cooperation from my private sector career than the “model” federal government.

Truly, I am glad that you find it “heartening and encouraging to see the Federal Government working to become a model employer of people with disabilities.” We need folks in administrative capacities such as yours to have this zeal to pursue this goal. I wish you well with your efforts. My reason for writing all this? Because I know it’s all too easy to see things as being a bit better than they really are when you examine them from a closer perspective. I would be happy to discuss my case with you more in depth to help your gain a better understanding of what needs to be done to make the government truly the model employer.

7 allen joyce August 29, 2010 at 2:10 pm

I work in a county prison and my concern is that my employer may say that I cannot do all jobs within the prison?I have had a disability that was diagnosed with when I was 18 years old ..brain avm which was surgically repaired after I took a stroke in 2005 .I was “demoted from my previous position as asst.warden of security to a correctional officer due to non performance ..My issues were directly related to post operative effects of the stroke and subsquent craniotomy!Because I never “asked “for a reasonable accommodation I had no recourse but to take the offer to be demoted to a correctional officer as a new officer .I still and will alwats have memory issues as well as other post operative symptoms!

8 Elya September 16, 2010 at 1:11 pm

A lot of “proper” boasting words!
Just make a simple algorithm, like: name, contact information, education, work history, disabilities, abilities, preferences, and run it- give a real help for real people: the best/suitable positions for the condition and how to get the position.
With a very slim hope, Elya.

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