Meeting of February 16, 2011 - EEOC to Examine Treatment of Unemployed Job Seekers
Madam Chair, commissioners, and distinguished guests. I am very excited about the opportunity to testify today on behalf of Americans with disabilities seeking employment. As the CEO of Bender Consulting Services, Inc., based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I have dedicated my life to the competitive employment of Americans with disabilities. I am the host of the Internet talk radio show, Disability Matters with Joyce Bender. In addition, I serve as the board chair of the national Epilepsy Foundation. Prior to founding Bender Consulting Services in 1995, I worked for over 16 years in the executive search industry. In addition to my professional experience, I live with epilepsy and hearing loss, so I am a person with a disability.
The company I founded, Bender Consulting, recruits and hires people with disabilities for competitive career opportunities in the private and public sectors. We recruit and hire Americans with significant disabilities for professional positions in information technology, finance, accounting, engineering, human resources, and other professional areas. Over 90% of the employees we recruit for positions with our customers are entry-level in experience, but all have the academic background required for the positions. Given my experience, which has included reviewing countless employment practices and policies, I can say without a doubt that the practice of excluding persons who are currently unemployed from applicant pools is real and can have a negative impact on persons with disabilities.
We know from the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics that nearly 80% of Americans with disabilities are not considered to be in the labor force (January 2011). Of the remaining 20% considered to be in the labor force, 13.6% of those individuals are unemployed. The majority of applicants with disabilities do not have work experience, and even if they do, it is often not current work experience. This includes many veterans who have sustained an injury in battle, requiring time to recuperate and resulting in a disability. As a result, their work experience is not current.
For many Americans with disabilities, the closing of the door to employment does not occur after the interview, it occurs before it when human resources “gate screeners” prevent the person from even getting an interview. The most common reason given is that the applicant with a disability doesn’t have current work experience, even if they are otherwise qualified. While there are forward-thinking employers who will include people with disabilities who are entry-level or currently unemployed, countless times I have heard the same excuse: "If only this person had current work experience, we would be happy to interview them.” Hiring managers call it seeking the “best qualified” talent for their company and no overt discriminatory comment is made, but I am concerned that for some of these employers discrimination is a factor. And even where it is not, the impact on workers with disabilities is the same; they are eliminated from the applicant pool.
I recently found a recruiting website targeting people in the aerospace/engineering disciplines. The site posted an advertisement that said the employer would not review a resume of anyone who is "not currently employed regardless of the reason." I understand that for certain positions, experience is required; however, not every position with a specific employer requires current work experience, even in a high-tech industry. If a high percentage of working age Americans with disabilities are considered to be “not in the labor force” or unemployed, a very large talent pool is being excluded from the opportunity to work by these prohibitions.
Over the years, I have encountered several private sector employers and public sector agencies that are willing to hire entry-level and/or currently unemployed people with disabilities. My company is currently working with the Bayer Corporation on the Bender/Bayer Cooperative Partnership Program. For 14 years, Bayer has worked with Bender Consulting Services to employ people with disabilities who are entry-level or currently unemployed. The CEO of Bayer, Greg Babe, wanted to create the Cooperative Partnership Program to expand the number of employers who would hire people with disabilities. Working through Bender Consulting, Bayer provides a one-year cooperative work experience to a person with a disability, with the understanding that at the end of one year, Bender will market that person for a long-term career opportunity with another company. During this work experience, Bender provides 100 percent premium paid family benefits to the cooperative employee. This has been a very successful program and is a great start, but it is not available to all disabled persons who want to work.
Beyond hurting those disabled persons who are currently seeking employment, the practice of excluding unemployed persons can discourage those who are not currently in the labor force from entering it. William Julius Wilson, in "When Work Disappears-the World of the New Urban Poor"' discusses the impact of "perceived futility" when opportunities seem hopeless. If enough doors are closed, the lack of self-efficacy leads to low self-esteem and a lack of confidence in the ability to work, which results in the individual pulling out of the labor market.
We, within the disability community cannot accept exclusion in any form, but this is especially true in the case of equal opportunity in employment. Moreover, our national goals for increasing employment amongst Americans with disabilities will never be met if the only way to gain an interview is to be currently employed.
The Americans with Disabilities Act makes it unlawful to discriminate in employment practices, including recruitment practices. I will leave it to others to determine whether the practice of excluding unemployed persons rises to the level of employment discrimination in violation of equal employment laws, but in my opinion and experience, I believe it does. I have seen the impact it has on disabled workers and am glad the Commission is reviewing it. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." Thank you for not being silent.