SPEAKER: Employment and Retention of Employees with Disabilities.
ANDY: Hi. My name is Andy Christensen, MCD council member from Northfield. I’m a white man with a beard, wearing a red sweatshirt. I’m sitting here in my home office. This segment features a conversation between citizen advocate Aaron Weikum and Representative Mike Freiberg. To begin, here’s Aaron’s experience.
AARON: Hello, everyone. My name is Aaron Weikum. I’m a large man with brown hair, a brown beard, and a black shirt. I’m an independent autistic adult and autism advocate, and I also work as a Vocational Rehabilitation Services professional.
I’m here today to highlight the immense barriers Minnesotans with disabilities face finding and maintaining integrated competitive employment. While I’m fortunate enough to be employed in a position I love, this has not always been the case. I’ve lived in poverty for most of my life, and I’ve experienced unlawful disability discrimination in education and employment environments.
In some cases, it has been explicit and actionable. Like being told by a prospective employer that an autistic person cannot do a specific job, or being berated and called the R-word by a supervisor. However, as with racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, in most instances, perpetrators go unpunished and victims receive no redress.
About 85% of autistic Americans are not engaged in competitive employment. And most who are, are underemployed, working part time with limited benefits, or otherwise being paid less than similarly situated neurotypical employees with equivalent qualifications.
Connect 700, the state’s initiative to hire and retain public servants like me, with communications-impacting disabilities at parity with the general population, has not been properly implemented. County and local governments and other public entities like school districts, where most public sector positions are found, do not participate in Connect 700. And few, if any, have developed equivalent initiatives to recruit and retain persons with disabilities. And in the private sector, where most Minnesota jobs are found, there is no incentive to hire and retain workers with disabilities.
On the contrary, most employers systematically screen out or pass over applicants with disabilities, despite this being illegal and costing them highly qualified talent. There lies before us now a historic opportunity to address this. Despite numerous issues, Minnesota is one of the best states for persons with disabilities to live and work. If we make further improvements and boost our reputation, we could attract a vast, untapped talent pool from other states and around the world to fill much needed positions and improve essential services.
Survey data suggests that employees with disabilities–particularly those on the autism spectrum–are more loyal and productive than any other worker demographic. Many of us have specialized skills and passions that neurotypical people lack. And if properly utilized, we could literally expand the boundaries of human knowledge and fix some of society’s most pernicious problems. All of this is to say that ignoring your autistic family, friends, and fellow citizens is not just to our detriment, but to everyone else’s. Thank you.
ANDY: Aaron, thank you for sharing your employment journey. I think shows the people listening today can quite possibly relate. Maybe more of us have had similar experiences. Representative Freiberg, what comes to mind as you listen to Aaron’s experience?
MIKE: I know, Aaron, you had a couple questions that you said you were going to ask me. Did you maybe want to turn to those?
AARON: Yeah, I did. I’ll just start. So hi, everyone. I would like to start out by saying that although I do work for Vocational Rehabilitation Services, the opinions expressed in that prior video segment and in this interview are my own, not necessarily consistent with the official positions at MN DEED. I’m speaking now as an independent autism advocate. So thank you, Representative Freiberg, for joining us today.
MIKE: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
AARON: So the main item in the legislative agenda this upcoming session concerning disability and employment is about the Connect 700 program. So for those who are not familiar, this program allows job applicants to state positions who have communications-impacting disabilities that prevent them from participating in the traditional interview-based selection process, up to 700 hours of on-the-job experience to demonstrate their qualifications and their ability to do the job. So, the State Employment and Retention of Employers with Disabilities–Employees with Disabilities bill would codify and improve Connect 700. Do you support that legislation, and why or why not?
MIKE: Yes, absolutely, I do. First of all, I appreciate your work, Aaron, both as a constituent of mine and as an autism advocate. I’m an autism parent, myself. So these are issues that are really important to me.
House File 2017 was included in last year’s House State Government omnibus bill. And just–I forget exactly how the votes lined up, but as the DFL caucus, we unanimously supported the omnibus and the inclusion of House File 2017. In there, it includes lots of really important provisions. So I know it would implement and codify several policies recommended by the advisory task force on state employment and retention of employees with disabilities.
You know, it establishes an accommodation fund and it included definitions of relevant terms and statutes, required–added new requirements for job postings to make them more accessible, required accommodations to be made within the selection processes, created the 700 hour on-the-job program that we’re talking about, and requires the inclusion of people with disabilities in affirmative action programs. So I think these are all really important goals. I think it’s really important to get people with disabilities into the workforce and was glad to support the bill.
AARON: And going forward, would you support any additional programmatic improvements to Connect 700 through legislation? For example, crediting that up to 700 hours that has already been worked by the participant toward the regular probationary period for state employees.
MIKE: Yeah, the goal of the Connect 700 program is to guarantee that disabled applicants are provided with on-the-job trial work experience to demonstrate they can perform the job. And if a disabled employee can do the job and is hired to the position, then they should receive credit for the time worked, even though it was probationary. I just think asking disabled applicants to complete both an on-the-job trial work period and the standard probationary period is duplicative, and it places our disabled workers behind their peers in accruing benefits.
AARON: Thank you. So as I mentioned in my pre-recorded portion, most public employees work not at state agencies, but for county and municipal level government, or for public school districts, or other local entities. And these employers don’t participate in Connect 700, and don’t generally have any accessible application standards at all. Do you find this acceptable, and do you see the legislature ever doing anything to address this?
MIKE: Yeah, no, I don’t think it’s acceptable. And I think we should address this and hope we will. So the goal is important. We should ensure that disabled employees are protected at every level of government employment. I know with House File 2017, the primary costs associated with it were creating the content for the ADA Title II, affirmative action, equal opportunity, digital accessibility inclusion, disability awareness, cultural competence, and the other trainings required in the bill. You know, those are one-time costs, and the programs can then be made available and tracked by employers at no additional cost. You know, certainly, we have an extensive surplus right now.
A fair amount of it is one-time funding, so something like this where there’s not ongoing expenses, I think, would be a good use of, you know, just a very small portion of the surplus. There may be additional costs to tailor the programs to different levels of government. We didn’t review those under last session’s bill. I wasn’t on the state government and local government committees in the last session, but I actually will be in the upcoming session, so I’m hopeful that this is something we can look at in our committee. And regardless, we should not let these costs impede developing and implementing accessible hiring processes at every level of government.
AARON: Thank you. And finally, of course, most Minnesota job vacancies are in the private sector. Do you see any ways that Minnesota law could help support equitable employment in that space?
MIKE: Yeah, no, there are some things we’ve looked at already. There’s the Task Force on the Elimination of the Subminimum Wage, and I know that can be kind of a controversial issue, but it is something I’ve supported. I do think people with disabilities who are, you know, in the workforce should be treated, you know, the same in terms of job protection laws and workplace protections and wage protections as people who don’t have disabilities. So, I’ve supported the, you know–I certainly support the work of the task force, and I do think we need to start looking forward to ways to eliminate the subminimum wage. And I’ve co-authored that bill and actually testified in favor of the task force bill a couple of years ago.
So, I know the task force is supposed–required to submit its report to the chairs by February 15th, 2023. So I think that’s something that we’ll definitely look at this year. And beyond that, just, you know, making sure there’s adequate funding for disabled workers, I think is something that’s really important. The 2021 jobs bill that we passed included a whole bunch of provisions in this regard. So, there was $28.6 million for Vocational Rehabilitation Services, funding for extended employment–
ANDY: I hate to interrupt you, Representative. Aaron, do you have any quick final thoughts?
AARON: No, go ahead, Representative.
ANDY: Okay, thank you both, Aaron and Representative Freiberg.