Working to Employ Alaskans with Disabilities
The Alaska Work Matters Task Force reviewed and analyzed existing policies, practices, procedures, barriers, and workforce utilization data regarding the employment of people with disabilities in Alaska, producing a report that includes sweeping recommendations for legislation and for executive branch departments, agencies, and commissions.
Task Force Recommendations for Employing Alaskans with Disabilities
“Over the years, he was visibly disappointed that he was not keeping up in terms of pay with others working in the same position without disability,” Mayes recalls. “He worked there for years and did not get a raise.”
At the time, the federal government commonly approved waivers for states to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage and less than their peers, even in integrated settings where people performed the same tasks. Often, when people with disabilities had jobs, they were segregated into workshops alongside other disabled people—an isolating practice that did nothing to support socialization and well-being.
The newspaper press was integrated, yet deafness still set Mayes’ father apart. “I remember as a little boy, going in and watching him work this big press machine, and I was proud of him,” Mayes says. “But I remember the day he walked through the door and was crying and said, ‘I can’t take it anymore,’ because he wasn’t being paid proportionally. So it’s personal for Patrick and I, people being paid for what they deserve.”
Patrick Reinhart is executive director of the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education, and Mayes is director of labor and workforce development in the Alaska Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR). Together, they co-chaired the Alaska Work Matters Task Force, convened in early 2021 by Governor Mike Dunleavy. The twenty-four-member group reviewed and analyzed existing policies, practices, procedures, barriers, and workforce utilization data regarding the employment of people with disabilities in Alaska.
The panel produced a report that includes sweeping recommendations for legislation and for executive branch departments, agencies, and commissions.
“Duane and I have been around for many years in state government, and we’ve had multiple conferences and meetings about employment with people with disabilities over the years,” Reinhart says, “but this was the first dedicated effort within state government to cross all departments involved with this issue and ask what the state can do to improve employment for people with disabilities.”
Part of the report documents the glaring disparity of employment of people with disabilities. Data sets from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey show that 35.1 to 51 percent of Alaskans with disabilities are employed, compared to between 76.3 and 80 percent of working-age Alaskans without disabilities.
“It’s very clear that people with disabilities are underrepresented,” says Steve Williams, CEO of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, which co-led the task force along with Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education.
The trust serves Alaskans who experience mental illness, developmental disabilities, chronic alcohol or drug addiction, Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia, and traumatic brain injuries. Williams says that connecting a person with disabilities with a meaningful and integrated employment opportunity provides structure and routine that can be foundational to recovery or living a fulfilling life.
The theme of the Statewide Independent Living Council’s 2022 conference was “Living, Working, and Playing Towards Independence.”
“The underlying premise here is that, just like anyone else, people experiencing a disability want to feel a sense of purpose,” Williams says. “They want to feel connected to their community, and they want to contribute to their community and feel valued, and that happens through employment. It is a sense of purpose, contribution, and value that is really critical to maintaining a healthy life. It’s critical for people in recovery to maintain their stability—whether it’s recovery from an addiction or making sure your mental health is stable, it’s just a critical piece to someone’s overall well-being.”
The gap in employment is partly driven by cultural barriers. For instance, employers historically resisted hiring people with disabilities because they thought there will be associated high costs or that disabled workers wouldn’t be productive.
“It’s a myth that an employee with a disability is going to be super expensive, whereas studies have shown very rarely accommodations are needed, and when they do cost money, the cost is typically less than $500,” Reinhart says. “But as an employer, you see someone wheeled in in a wheelchair and you think, ‘Oh my God, this person is going to be so expensive to accommodate,’ and it’s just not true. And we have to get rid of this societal myth that somehow people with disabilities are expensive to have.”
One of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority’s primary areas of advocacy is battling the stigma of disability, says Williams. It remains an unfair, inaccurate, and prominent barrier that prevents people with disabilities from accessing housing, services, and jobs.
“These are health conditions, and these people with a disability can do the job just like anyone else with a health condition and be a wonderful employee,” Williams says.
Attendees at the Statewide Independent Living Council’s 2022 Conference.
The report delivered by the Alaska Work Matters Task Force contains twenty-two recommendations and sixty-eight action steps summarized in five sections: state hiring goals and practices; private sector capacity building; employment services and support; preparing people with disabilities for work and transitions, such as from school to the workforce; and policies and practices that promote staying at or returning to work amid adversity and challenges.
The first of the report’s five sections, focusing on the State of Alaska as a model employer for individuals with disabilities, recommends ongoing education to executive and legislative staff on disability employment trends and data on employment outcomes.
It also calls for establishing via legislative action a centralized accommodation fund for state positions that hiring managers could use to offset any costs associated with employing people with disabilities. Reinhart reiterates that it’s the assumption there are costs versus the reality of expense that is a barrier, but having such a fund would help counteract that bias.
Attendees at the Statewide Independent Living Council’s 2022 Conference.
The report’s second section, on private sector capacity building, lays out actions to support training and hiring of people with disabilities, including accessible job fairs and partnering with the state-run Alaska Vocational Technical Education Center in Seward to ensure representation of people with disabilities in training programs.
The third section of the report examines employment services and supports. In this section, the task force considered unique circumstances in rural Alaska, exploring subsistence and self-employment as successful employment outcomes.
“We want people to want to be productive members of society and not be excluded from opportunities that exist around subsistence,” Reinhart says.
Section three also goes into an ongoing struggle for many with disabilities seeking and maintaining employment: accessible, reliable, timely transportation.
“It’s a perennial issue, and there’s no easy solution,” says Reinhart, who has personally supported many efforts over the years focused on transportation for people who are disabled.
Attendees at the Statewide Independent Living Council’s 2022 Conference.
He explains, “Here’s the way we look at it: if a community has a healthy community public transportation system, it will be inclusive of people with disabilities who are wanting to access employment. If they don’t have one, it’s hit or miss. It really is about the economic vitality of a community.
How do you get to work if you’re in a wheelchair, or have any kind of mobility impairment?”
Through the Alaska Mobility Coalition, chaired by Reinhart, work is underway to promote public transportation in Alaska communities that currently have nothing in place—Reinhart offers Homer as one example.
“It’s constantly being adjusted and looked at, but it’s not a one-fix thing,” he says. “It’s just a tough one.”
The report’s fourth section considers best practices for supporting transitions to the workplace, including how to support at-risk youth, and guidance to expand and improve school-to-work transition resources for school personnel.
The final report section explores telework to counteract transportation difficulties. It isn’t applicable to all jobs or always ideal, but Mayes calls telework “a game-changer,” particularly for those with significant physical disabilities. The task force acknowledges disparities based on poor internet availability.
The concept of Alaska as an “Employment First state” began a decade ago during the Governor Sean Parnell administration, Reinhart says, which meant “we should be looking at every opportunity for people with disabilities to be employed. Just like every other individual in society has an expectation they’re going to go to work at some point, you have that expectation of the person with a disability.”
Employment First as the priority option for publicly financed daytime services is a framework of the US Department of Labor. The Work Matters Task Force is likewise an extension of a larger national campaign known as the State Exchange on Employment and Disability, or SEED. Overseen by the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability and Employment Policy, SEED is a state/federal collaboration that supports state and local governments in adopting and implementing inclusive policies and best practices that lead to increased employment for disabled people and a stronger, more inclusive American workforce and economy.
“Research shows that customers choose brands they feel represented by… Research also shows that diverse perspectives increase empathy for customers. Inclusion in the workplace is one of the most important keys to retention.”
At the working level, this means Alaska’s task force had federal contractors on hand to provide technical assistance, and members could draw from work already completed by other states within the SEED framework.
“Depending on the topic we were discussing, they might already have a policy position from another state we could reference,” Mayes says. “That was the beauty of this effort as we looked at existing systems, in considering what we could do to elevate competitive and integrated employment for Alaskans with disabilities.”
Reinhart adds that the task force was able to point to research that shows people with disabilities can be exceptional additions in the workplace: “They’re more likely to show up every day, they’re not job hoppers, they’re consistent in sticking with a job, they’re appreciative of a good job with a good employer. Study after study shows they’re great employees to have.”
To facilitate hiring, the State of Alaska has a provisional hire component that allows agencies to work directly with DVR to place job-seekers.
“It’s really leveling the playing field,” Mayes says. “We have been able to successfully get Alaskans into state positions through that model.”
Private Sector Steps
A private-sector employer that’s actively placing workers with disabilities is Alaska Communications (ACS). The company was one of three, along with Mat-Su Regional Medical Center and Matanuska Electric Association, that participated in the Alaska Work Matters Task Force, offering an employer perspective.
“We support building a more inclusive workforce throughout the state and saw this as an opportunity to help, as well as grow and learn ourselves,” says Rose Muncy, ACS program manager in talent management.
Muncy has worked with DVR to learn additional ways to attract individuals with disabilities to apply for career opportunities. “Some of the tactics are small, like checking the box on the Craigslist ad which encourage individuals with disabilities to apply,” she says.
ACS partners with the DVR’s JobX group that meets weekly. This collaborative network invites major employers and provides the opportunity to hear the most up-to-date news on job announcements and hiring events, Muncy says.
ACS also has a program called IDEAL, which stands for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Learning. Its mission is to create, nurture, and sustain an inclusive culture where differences drive innovation and empathy drives connection.
“[Workers with disabilities are] more likely to show up every day, they’re not job hoppers, they’re consistent in sticking with a job, they’re appreciative of a good job with a good employer. Study after study shows they’re great employees to have.”
“This group was founded in 2015 with a focus on the acceleration of women in the workplace, but we since expanded the mission to create opportunities for all marginalized groups, including individuals with disabilities,” Muncy says.
Steps ACS has taken for recruiting people with disabilities include maintaining an accessible website and careers webpage, providing alternatives for completing the application process, posting job ads where individuals with disabilities are more likely to access them, hosting career fairs where individuals with disabilities are supported to attend, and collaborating with the business community and state agencies to expand their knowledge and network.
Muncy adds that ACS believes inclusionary hire of people with disabilities is important to her company’s stakeholders.
“Research shows that customers choose brands they feel represented by,” she says. “Research also shows that diverse perspectives increase empathy for customers. Inclusion in the workplace is one of the most important keys to retention.”
From a retention vantage point, ACS considers providing a more flexible work environment. “We’ve found our hybrid work model to be an added benefit to individuals with disabilities,” Muncy says.
Hybrid work was one of many concepts explored by the task force, too. However, the task force cautions that telework is not a one-size-fits all solution and should not be the default for employees who have disabilities. “Some individuals may prefer to share a workplace with others rather than work at home in isolation. It is critical that policies regarding telework clearly state that individuals with disabilities should have full participation in telework decisions without others making assumptions that employees with disabilities should work from home rather than being included in the workplace,” the report says.
The task force also identified a need for ongoing support for Alaskans who are hurt or become ill on the job.
“Multiple studies have shown [that] the longer someone stays at home after an injury, the less likely they are to go back to work. And in this day and age, it’s the last thing we need,” Reinhart says. “We need to make sure there aren’t barriers and incentivize return to work as much as we can… Maybe you can’t get to the office anymore, but what can we do to bring the office to you?”
The task force also considered steps to support seniors who remain in the workforce. Alaska’s Senior Community Services Employment Program is called Mature Alaskans Seeking Skills Training. In July 2022, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development transferred administration of this program to DVR “so we can maximize our resources for the benefit of that senior and get them integrated competitive employment,” Reinhart says.
Mayes and Reinhart credit the task force members with seeing and promoting this transfer and other solutions that will improve employment opportunities for all Alaskans. The task force’s report represents an ambitious collection of next steps, and meetings are underway to advance the work, Mayes says.
The Alaska Legislature already took an important action in 2022, passing a bill to essentially forever ban disparate pay based on disability, as Mayes’ father experienced.
“Not many states have done that,” Reinhart says. “We’re one of the few that really jumped on that. No more are we going to allow workshop-type environments when we pay people less.”
Reinhart adds, “I always say, when we develop a plan for a person with disabilities, we should ask, ‘What do you want to do for a living?’ A job is a part of most people’s identity. Without that, people can wander in the wilderness. And we want people with disabilities to have identity and a contribution to society.”
This year the Alaska Railroad is celebrating 100 years of transportation people and cargo around Alaska. While the railroad is one of the states oldest transporters, it certainly isn’t the only one, and in this issue of Alaska Business we also check in on the Marine Highway, Span Alaska, and the White Pass & Yukon Route. For those interested in Southeast, our focus on that region provides updates on Kensington Mine, Tongass FCU, the troll fishery, and Juneau’s growing landfill.