Disability, Integration and the New Era of Employment for People with Disabilities
By Theresa O'Neill
Dave Miller, CEO of New Ventures, Inc. in La Grange, Georgia, has been employing people with disabilities at the nonprofit agency for 20 years. With proposed legislation challenging the current state of employment options for people with disabilities, Miller said his business has already felt the trickle-down effects.
According to Miller, state-run vocational rehabilitation programs are putting pressure on nonprofit agencies to fully integrate employees with disabilities into the workplace, including paying everyone, regardless of productivity level, at least the federal minimum wage. In Miller's opinion, the current political pressures don't consider individuals with the most significant disabilities who want to work but have significantly impacted productivity and unique needs that make acquiring competitive employment and competitive wages very challenging.
Miller added that as an NPA executive, he feels a sense of responsibility to create opportunities for his employees with disabilities to show themselves and others they can be excellent workers. He said most private businesses look for employees who already have the work skills to help the company be profitable, and are not yet ready to fully accept people with disabilities.
With these swirling political pressures, Miller made the decision not to renew the 14(c) certificate and to pay all employees at least the federal minimum wage. To help ensure his employees can meet productivity standards for competitive wages, Miller and members of his staff are actively looking at each job and how they can reengineer them for process improvement.
"We're doing everything we can to make sure our employees are as productive and efficient as possible," Miller said. "Our staff is looking at every job to find the best methods, and matching the skills of each person to jobs they do best. We've seen increases in productivity and reduced training times. We‘ve also hired a number of people with barriers to employment so the training force more closely reflects the community and industry workforce."
SourceAmerica's Kevin Ryan, a rehabilitation engineer, has been helping Miller address his workplace efficiency issues as New Ventures expands to a 130,000-square-foot plant. Miller also plans to sign up for SourceAmerica's Design Challenge, a contest that empowers high school and college students to engineer job productivity solutions for nonprofit agencies like his.
While Miller is hopeful about his company's efforts to improve employee productivity, he is still concerned about those with the most significant disabilities who, because of political pressures, may not have the freedom of choice to work.
"We as a society talk about people with disabilities having the same choice of workplace as people without disabilities. If a person wants to work and their productivity is very limited, they should be able to," Miller said. "The fact is, if there's no additional funding, and employees with the most significant disabilities cannot meet minimum productivity goals, there will be job loss opportunities. There will still be this population that needs to be served."
Miller said the concept of having the freedom of choice to work is something he will continue to advocate for on behalf of people with disabilities.
"The freedom to work is not a civil rights issue; it's a human rights issue," Miller said. "If we don't continue to speak up for people with disabilities and teach them to speak up for themselves, then someone else―a political group or ideology―is going to take that right away."