Thousands of disabled Pennsylvanians are about to lose critical access to training and employment. If Governor Wolf and the legislature do not provide critical funding for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry’s Office of Vocation Rehabilitation (PA OVR) during the current budget cycle, the services PA OVR provides are at risk, as are those who benefit.
The Workforce Investment Opportunity Act of 2015 (WIOA) mandated significant increases in the demographics of who is eligible for PA OVR services — without providing additional funding. Sadly, by including children with disabilities aged 14 to 21, and those with intellectual disabilities who could certainly benefit from PA OVR services, while gaining no extra financial support, the office has run out of money to serve the adult applicants with multiple severe disabilities who have relied on OVR for employment assistance for over 90 years.
People with disabilities represent a very large, if not the largest, minority group of unemployed Pennsylvanians.
Further, minority groups who face distinct barriers to employment including women, veterans, and those who identify as LGBTQ, may also identify as disabled. These citizens are disproportionately unemployed and/or underemployed. Fewer than 60 percent of people with disabilities have a college degree. That is why access to education, training, and employment placement is vital.
PA OVR is, in many cases, the only workforce training program equipped to successfully provide vocational training and placement services that result in jobs. Fields as varying as health care, IT, and hospitality have positions — often ones not requiring a college degree — that can be filled by workers who receive the specialized training that OVR and affiliates such as the Sierra Group, a nonprofit, community-based provider funded by PA OVR, are uniquely positioned to provide.
The programs and services funded by PA OVR often work directly with employers throughout the commonwealth. They support on-site job training and coaching, develop creative work approaches to accommodating disabilities and improving job performance, and provide important recruitment and referral services. They also provide educational awareness of the value and importance of hiring people with disabilities.
If the funding shortfall is not addressed, these and other vital services will disappear. The impact will be felt through the commonwealth. There would be an immediate shortage of skilled workers along with a stoppage of the growth rate of employment for Pennsylvanians with disabilities and with that, a corresponding increase in our overall unemployment rate. The resources available for all of these assistance programs would virtually dry up — with no replacement.
The story of Allison Auld of Philadelphia says it all. Allison is 48 years old. She has multiple disabilities and has not worked in six years. Because of the training she has received through PA OVR funding, she is currently gaining business skills, training, and job placement assistance and is now qualified to work as an administrative assistant. She is “on the path to employment and a better life.”
Allison is fortunate that she began her training before the funding crisis. How many others will be less fortunate?
Budget season is never easy. There is only so much money to spend. However, funding to put disabled Pennsylvanians back to work should never be in question. For one thing, it is good business. Studies show that companies that hire people with disabilities are rewarded with business growth and market success.
Equally as important, everyone should know the dignity and value that comes from work. That opportunity should not be lost because of a lack of access to proper resources and training that result from politics.
The governor and the legislature should do the right thing and fund the PA OVR so that disabled Pennsylvanians throughout the commonwealth will continue to have access to training and employment opportunities. We will all be the better for it.
Rick Grimaldi is a management-side workplace attorney with the national law firm Fisher Phillips. He is the former deputy general counsel to Pa. Governor Tom Ridge and former chief counsel to the Pa. Department of Labor & Industry. He can be reached at (610) 230-2136.