Advice for States on Improving Disability Employment from Oregon Representative Gene Whisnant

By Matthew Shafer

Individuals with disabilities are major contributors to the modern workforce. However, the unemployment rate for those with disabilities is almost double  the unemployment rate of the general population according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Taking the proper steps to provide workers with disabilities the appropriate accommodations could reduce this high unemployment rate, and provide opportunities to thrive at work. Employment is the most direct and cost-effective means to empower individuals to achieve independence, economic self-sufficiency, and a sense of dignity and self-worth.

In 2016, The Council of State Governments and the National Conference of State Legislatures assembled a national task force to focus on workforce development efforts targeting people with disabilities. Oregon Representative Gene Whisnant served on the Career Readiness and Employability Subcommittee. Representative Whisnant spoke with CSG about his role on the task force and Oregon’s HB 2965 which establishes an Oregon task force to review CSG’s Work Matters report released in December 2016 and find policy options to increase workforce development for Oregonians with disabilities..

Can you tell us the latest on Oregon HB 2965? What kind of a reception has it gotten in the legislature thus far?

We’ve had really good support so far, especially from non-profit groups dedicated to vocational rehabilitation. This bill establishes a state task force specific to Oregon that will review CSG and NCSL’s Work Matters report. Oregon’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation has offered to staff the task force, and perform a statewide assessment of needs. The problem is convincing other legislators that we need an Oregon specific task-force to study the work of the national task force. Hopefully we can get it moving next legislative session. The Speaker put a hold on all task force bills because of funding, but the cost of this task force will only consist of per diems for a small number of legislators so it won’t be too costly. We’ve received great support though. It passed unanimously out of committee.

If passed, what do you anticipate the task force developed as a result of HB 2965 could accomplish?

The task force would study the Work Matters report and focus on the accuracy, outcomes, financial success of Oregon vocational rehabilitation programs. Our vocational rehabilitation programs already serve 16,000 people, and created 2,000 jobs in 2016, but there is still much more room for growth. These programs were already more effective than I originally thought they were. The main goal of the task force is comparing the report to what our bill says and what Oregon is already doing, and helping guide legislation development in that light.

How did the testimony presented by Bobby Silverstein, a member of the SEED initiative, facilitate consideration of your Bill HB 2965 in the House Committee on Higher Education and Workforce Development?

Mr. Silverstein was very effective. We were very appreciative of his efforts, and appreciative of CSG for providing us with such a great person to speak for us on the issue. He was very professional and already had a working relationship with a few of the committee members so that helped.

How did your role as a member of The National Conference of State Legislators provide you an opportunity to work with CSG on this effort? What is the value of collaboration to legislators? 

I’m on NCSL Standing Education Committee and I work a lot on workforce issues for military veterans with disabilities so I was very encouraged when I saw CSG was doing work around this issue. I was able to attend the meeting in Williamsburg when the Work Matters report was introduced. As a legislator I really appreciated the collaboration. It’s very important for more than one legislative group to help put a report like this together.

How would you encourage other state legislators to introduce a bill similar to HB 2965, and make recommendations on policy options that should be considered by state legislatures?

I would tell them to read the Work Matters report. It helps gives states a framework and somewhere to start from. Everyone wants to be successful in this area and be good employers of people with disabilities. States should not overlook the benefits that this talented group brings to the work force. Employers need to be saying these workers can give us X,Y,& Z rather than these workers will cost us X,Y,& Z to accommodate them. One of the first things I did around this issue was changing the language so that they were no longer called disabled people, but people with disabilities. Because first and foremost they are people who have rights to employment like everyone.

You can download the Work Matters report in its entirety here.

If you any have questions or would like to learn more about disability employment and the Work Matters report, contact Elizabeth Whitehouse at [email protected] or (859) 457-6400.