Ready and willing

Disability advocates press for more workplace inclusion

Daniel J. Munoz//January 31, 2022//

Ready and willing

Disability advocates press for more workplace inclusion

Daniel J. Munoz//January 31, 2022//

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Kysha Daye grew up with seizures but was working at an animal clinic before the pandemic. – COURTESY OF VENUS MAJESKI

Kysha Daye was relatively well off. Despite growing up with seizures as a toddler and requiring years of therapy, she was able to go to work, pay bills and run errands while living at a supervised living program in Middlesex County. She’s been in the workforce since 1996, most recently doing housekeeping at the Hopelawn Animal Clinic and approaching the job as “really a good experience.”

“She’s more high-functioning than some of the other tenants,” said her manager, Heidi Milano.

But then COVID-19 hit. In a bid to prevent outbreaks among the state’s most vulnerable residents, the state’s COVID-19 restrictions made it so that residents could not leave or enter the facilities.

“COVID was really hard on the tenants in her building, because they shut them down to keep everybody safe,” Milano explained. Whereas the public health emergency between March and June 2020 meant fewer trips outside for most New Jerseyans, Daye was essentially isolated and unable to make it to work for months. So she filed for unemployment benefits.

The restrictions on group homes came as the Murphy administration faced criticism over its handling of senior and resident homes, where COVID-19 claimed thousands of lives. “People with disabilities definitely went backwards, especially those who were younger and under 18 with disabilities” because of the shutdowns, said Sen. Vin Gopal, D-11th District, a member of the Legislative Disability Caucus.

The pandemic laid bare the reality of a demographic already behind the eight-ball going into 2020. There are roughly 61 million Americans living with disabilities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent, and 1.6 million in New Jersey.

More than 4.1 million people were employed in New Jersey as of 2019, of which roughly 165,000 had a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in its most recent American Community Survey report for the state.

Workers with disabilities were less likely than their non-disabled counterparts to have a job during the pandemic in 2020, and were much less likely to have gone to college, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Whereas the nationwide unemployment rate for non-disabled workers rose from 3.5% in 2019 to 7.9% in 2020, the same rate for workers with a disability rose from 7.3% in 2019 to 12.6% in 2020.

The state generally gets decent marks for ensuring gainful employment for New Jerseyans struggling with physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities. Preliminary data from the BLS showed that in the Mid-Atlantic region, which includes New Jersey, unemployment for those with disabilities rose from 7.6% in 2019 to 14.3% in 2020, then dipped to 12.3% in 2021.

However, for those without disabilities, the region’s unemployment rate rose from 3.8% in 2019 to 9.4% the next year, dropping to 6.5% in 2021.

“Workers with disabilities were disproportionately laid off or furloughed, especially during the first several months of the pandemic in 2020,” said Nantanee Koppstein, treasurer for the New Jersey chapter of the Association of People Supporting Employment First, a national organization that tries to get more disabled workers into the workplace.

Many people with disabilities worked in the service sector and retail, which Koppstein said were “particularly hard hit.”

While teleworking arrangements like Zoom helped level the playing field for some workers – especially those who needed transportation assistance for their commute – others lacked “equal access and support” in the early days of the pandemic, she continued.

“We have heard anecdotally that there had been less jobs available for disabled workers due to COVID and a reliance of remote work,” said Chrissy Buteas, chief government affairs officer at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

A study published last May ranked New Jersey in the bottom half – 30th place – in terms of livability for those with disabilities. The index published by the Washington, D.C. think tank Policygenius listed Pennsylvania as the best state and Mississippi as the worst state.

The report looked at government data from over two dozen factors grouped into economic conditions such as median income, unemployment rates and access to free career services; affordability such as the minimum wage, cost of living and housing; livability such as ease for transportation and community relations; and the state’s health care systems.

Making connections

Disability advocates and business leaders contend that hiring shortages could translate to a hiring boom for workers with disabilities.

“Because there’s so many entry-level jobs that remain unfilled … employers are taking people with disabilities, without even a second thought. So that worked in their favor,” said Venus Majeski, director of development and community relations at the New Jersey Institute for Disabilities

The NJID is one of a number of nonprofits throughout the state, and in this case teamed up with employers like Hopelawn.

But accommodations can be tricky for an employer to nail down, she explained. An employee might need a laptop with a larger screen than what’s provided to other staff, Majeski said. Or an employee with cerebral palsy might need an aide – typically provided by a public agency or nonprofit – to physically assist them with doing work, even if it is an office job.

“Employers will make the investment if they have a valued employee. They want to make sure their needs and concerns are addressed,” said Mike Egenton, executive vice president of government relations at the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “You don’t want to lose a good employee – with the labor shortages and concerns that are out there.”

Federal and state laws allow certain workers with disabilities to be paid below minimum wage. In New Jersey, subminimum wage can be paid to disabled workers at sheltered workshops – a supervised workplace for staff with disabilities – as well as certain rehabilitation programs and businesses that receive a waiver from the state Labor Department.

Employers need to “demonstrate an employee’s disability impairs their productivity when compared to employees without a disability,” according to the National Conference for State Legislatures.

“The issue then was when it was first introduced in the 1930s during the Great Depression, it was meant to … help people acquire skills and then transition out of minimum wage and higher in the community,” Koppstein said. “What happened is that people simply [got] stuck in this environment and it becomes a poverty trap.”

New Jersey has 26 such sheltered workshops operating 28 sites, which all had to close for several months early in the pandemic. When they reopened in September 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy and top lawmakers agreed to provide $1.3 million of federal COVID relief funds – $25,000 at each site – to cover the costs of remote-work, masks, social distancing and cleaning measures.

Gopal, who’s sponsored several disability rights bills, said that he did not know of any plans to scrap the subminimum wage. No such legislation has been introduced so far, according to public records. Murphy’s office and the New Jersey Department of Labor – which enforces the state’s minimum wage laws – were not available for comment for this story.

When Murphy signed the statewide minimum wage increase to $15 an hour in early 2019, the law included a $10 million yearly tax credit program for employers who hire workers with disabilities.

Starting in 2020, a business that paid more to a disabled worker in that year than the prior year can subtract the difference and claim the tax credit. The provision was backed by then-Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who chaired the Legislative Disability Caucus when it was founded last year.

“My concern was the first people that will be targeted for layoffs will be the disabled people,” Sweeny, whose daughter has Down syndrome, said in early 2019. “So I want to put something in place to help preserve people with disabilities’ opportunity for employment.”

Statistics on use of the program were not immediately available from the state Labor Department.

Help from Trenton

State leaders are considering several new measures that could entice more employers to hire disabled workers. Assembly Bill 904 would provide businesses with a varying scale of tax credits for the wages paid to disabled employees, up to $6,000, and other credits of up to $600 for transportation services for the worker along with other credits. Meanwhile, A479 would create tax breaks of up to $2,400 per qualified hire with a developmental disability.

“I’d like to see more on future grants that we give to businesses, that we attach a piece in there where they need to support and hire people with disabilities,” Gopal said.

Lawmakers attempted to pass several similar tax breaks in the past session, but Koppstein said she was skeptical of their effectiveness. While they would “benefit businesses,” she said, “there’s no mention of required job retention time.”

“It could just be a revolving door that people go through. There’s no required longevity at all.”

While tax breaks and other state subsidies have been subject to scrutiny over the past several years, Koppstein said that small changes to state law had a more far-reaching impact in securing employment for the state’s disabled workers.

One bill Murphy signed on Jan. 10 revised the state’s Medicaid requirements so that a disabled worker would not be disqualified if they take get a job. “The biggest barrier that prevents people with disabilities from wanting to work, whether to take up a new job, or to accept a promotion and career advancement, is the fear of losing Medicaid,” she said. “Many people actually rely on Medicaid just to be able to live and live independently.”

Another bill Murphy signed prioritizes job applicants with disabilities seeking to work for the state government, which Koppstein pointed out is New Jersey’s largest employer.

But small employers can also play a part. Kysha Daye is back at the Hopelawn Animal Clinic, having returned to work in the spring of 2021.