What To Consider When Employing People With Disabilities

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President Trump kicked off his re-election campaign last month with a list of accomplishments, from the market rebound to unemployment being “the lowest it has been in 51 years.” According to a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) article, “With unemployment at a low, fewer people are looking for jobs. Many employers are having a hard time finding people qualified to fill the positions they have open. That’s left an opening for people with disabilities, a group that’s broadly defined under the Americans With Disabilities Act.”

While this is great economic news, some people with disabilities are paid less than minimum wage. Through an antiquated loophole signed into law in 1938, persons with disabilities are allowed to be compensated based on their levels of “productivity.”

People with disabilities were historically exploited by many nonprofits, evoking the 14(c) clause and allowing people with disabilities to be compensated at as little as $1 an hour. If people in Washington were paid based on “levels of productivity,” it would result in some of them making just cents or dollars per week. Although the law remains the same and some advisors believe it should not be changed, the cliché “necessity is the mother of invention” prevails.

People with disabilities should never be compensated lower than minimum wage. Now that so many employers are struggling to fill their positions, hopefully, we’ll begin to see less of this. While people with disabilities bring a “disability” to the job, the pros certainly outweigh the cons. In my experience, they do not bring drama, a negative attitude or a sense of entitlement after being newly hired. They instead bring openness, selflessness and a willingness to learn, and, in return they should receive at least the minimum wage and dignity.

Recently, my nonprofit, Community Options Enterprises, opened an entrepreneurial business in Princeton, New Jersey, that aims to employ both people with and without disabilities. Everyone who works there is given the same benefits and compensated at minimum wage or above. We have a total of 15 part-time workers with autism and intellectual disabilities. Additionally, each employee works in an integrated setting and has a chance for career advancement.

Vaseful is not our first business. It is our second flower store in New Jersey and our seventh entrepreneurial business, overall, in the United States. Last year, in our first flower store, we serviced over 20 weddings. The people who arranged the flowers, maintained the store and handled logistics and the product were people with autism and Down syndrome, as well as those without any disabilities. We know from experience that businesses and organizations in which people with disabilities are compensated at minimum wage or better are effective and replicable.

Nonprofits interested in opening entrepreneurial businesses need to develop business plans and recruit relevant talent with histories in the particular businesses they are pursuing. In most instances, capitalization is needed. This can be accomplished from board support or collateralized bank loans. Issues such as liability, staff training, cash flow, marketing, product procurement or development, and a sound operational strategy are also important.

If your nonprofit has an operation currently paying substandard wages, it is essential that you retool existing services to reflect a balance sheet that will pay all staff minimum wage or higher and reflect a product that will ultimately garner a profit ameliorating the mission.

Almost all of these approaches require comprehensive business plans. Contingent on the level of sophistication of the board, nonprofit decisions should be made to retain viable consultants or to ask for appropriate volunteers to frame this out. Approaching a nonprofit with experience in this field is a good way to start, as many offer management consulting for business development.

Additionally, nonprofits looking to create employment opportunities for people with disabilities may want to consider working with employers to identify jobs. Our organization, for instance, supports over 3,700 people nationally, and the majority of them need jobs.

Looking at the jobs an employer needs to fill, coupled with our candidates’ abilities and disabilities, is akin to going to a tailor to fix your slacks. We apply innovative technology called “customized employment.” Employment specialists work to meet the needs of a given employer based on its unique situation. This may mean bringing in people who are part-time to do different aspects of the job. If a candidate is not a fit, we part as friends and either come up with other candidates or move on to other potential positions. Our candidates might have disabilities, but they also know when it is and is not a good fit.

People with disabilities need to be employed. They need to forge relationships and engage with others socially. We have been doing this for 30 years and have found that it works and can lead to greater success with one-time capital philanthropic investments.

At the opening of our newest Vaseful, New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who is also a parent of a child with a disability, said, “Communities are continuing to become more inclusive for people with disabilities. That doesn’t mean merely putting a ramp alongside a stairwell, or greater educational opportunities; it also means greater breath of employment options for everyone.”


Post written by

Forbes Councils Member
Robert Stack Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of Community Options.