A new Department of Labor proposal could require federal contractors to adopt a 7 percent hiring quota for qualified people with disabilities.

When Asbury Automotive Group launched its cafe concept for training and employing individuals with autism last December, employees felt they were helping to change the lives of autistic young adults.

“In turn, they have changed all of our lives,” says Melissa Corey, public relations and communications manager for the company, which operates 79 car dealerships in the Southeast. The concept — called Café Blends: Blending Autism Into the Workplace — focuses on hiring employees with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, to run cafes at designated dealerships.

Asbury Automotive Group’s initiative is very timely. The comment period just closed for a new Department of Labor proposal that would require federal contractors and subcontractors to adopt a 7 percent hiring quota for qualified people with disabilities. While it’s primarily aimed at the largest companies and universities, many small businesses may be affected as well.

An estimated 22 percent of the nation’s workforce is funded through federal contracts, says Barbara Otto, CEO of Think Beyond the Label, a public-private partnership that helps build a pipeline of qualified disabled candidates who can meet the hiring needs of businesses. The number of Americans with disabilities, as protected under the broad definition of the Americans with Disabilities Act, represents nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population.

Assessing the cost impact for businesses

A debate is raging over the DOL proposal, with opponents claiming companies that service government contracts will incur increased labor costs and reduced productivity. Proponents say that while there may be some increased costs, they won’t be so extreme.

Employers strive to accommodate all of their employees, so accommodating a worker with a disability is no different, says Paul Hippolitus, director of the Disabled Students’ Program at the University of California, Berkeley. An estimated 56 percent of the 22,000 accommodations made over the course of 30 years reportedly cost employers nothing, according to the Job Accommodation Network. The rest averaged $500.

For accommodations that are more expensive, public agencies like the United States Department of Veterans Affairs' Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service help pay for equipment or other assistive devices if they lead to employment. There are also many state and federal programs that offer worker opportunity tax credits, as well as architectural and infrastructure tax credits, to businesses that accommodate employees with disabilities, says Otto.

As for health care costs, “in 42 of the 50 states, there are programs that enable workers with disabilities to pay a premium to be in a state-sponsored program, which alleviates the fear that a lot of small-business owners have about costs,” says Otto. Eligibility for these programs varies across state lines.

For Café Blends at Asbury Automotive Group, the company hired a daily job coach for 20 hours a week to help its employees on the job. But “they [the employees] work so independently that the job coach is barely needed,” says Corey.

There are also plenty of not-for-profit agencies, such as New York State’s Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals With Disabilities (VESID) and NISH, that provide support services like training and job placement for the disabled. “We use them and partner with them when we are looking for opportunities,” says Michelle Benjamin, CEO and president of Benjamin Enterprises, a managed labor provider.

And there are many organizations that specialize in supporting disabled people looking for jobs and connecting them with other organizations. These include Springboard Consulting and programs like Warriors to Work, which is run by the Wounded Warrior Project, a group that assists injured service members. As with all hiring situations, aligning qualifications with job requirements is key. “The job needs to match the business goals as far as the function and duties — as well as a level of performance from the individual,” says Benjamin.

Asbury Automotive Group contracts with Nobis Works, a nonprofit that provides job training and employment for people with disabilities. The agency knows the capabilities of each employee and can help match the right person to the right job.

So how can small businesses accommodate new workplace diversity rules? Damon Hill, program director at Cole Vocational Services and partner of the MENTOR Network in California, has these recommendations:

- Bring in experts. Have an expert who works with disabled people educate small-business owners to ensure they understand that people with developmental disabilities are capable of performing various job tasks.

- Adjust hiring processes. In order to conduct an effective interview, business owners should adjust their hiring processes. For example, they might consider using visual demonstrations or work performance assessments.

- Create manageable tasks. Employers can accommodate workers with developmental disabilities by offering lighter work duties or a check-off list, job coach support, special equipment based on duties, a rearranged work area, or routine job assignments.

- Provide a trial period. For workers with developmental disabilities, employers can provide a trial period to see how they are able to perform duties, or even an internship where employment options become enacted after a certain period.

Asbury Automotive Group’s program was so successful that the company opened a cafe at another dealership in March. “They have been doing an amazing job running the cafes,” says Corey. “We’re looking to scale this at more dealerships.”

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