Oregon Workgroup Aims to Improve Employment Outcomes for People with Disabilities

By Matthew Shafer

The Council of State Governments, in partnership with the National Conference of State Legislators, or NCSL, and the State Exchange on Employment and Disability, or SEED, provided technical assistance to Oregon’s House Workgroup on Workforce Development for People with Disabilities. The workgroup is made up of representatives from Oregon’s House Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee chaired by Rep. Jeff Reardon. Other members include Rep. Gene Whisnant, the vice chair, and Rep. Janeen Sollman.

Oregon has a history of action when it comes to removing barriers to employment for people with disabilities. Whisnant served as a member of The National Task Force on Workforce Development for People with Disabilities and was on the Career Readiness and Employability Subcommittee. This National Task Force effort provided the opportunity for state leaders to identify barriers to employment for people with disabilities and explore policy options to address them in order to increase the workforce participation for this population in their states. Whisnant’s leadership and the Task Force’s policy recommendations resulted in the Work Matters Policy Framework, which offers state officials 13 broad policy options, as well as real-life examples of innovative programs and policies, that states have successfully implemented to build strong, inclusive workforces. Work Matters represents bipartisan and state-driven policy options that are actionable and have broad appeal to a wide number of stakeholders.

The impetus for the Oregon House workgroup began with Oregon HB 4041, which sought to establish a task force in Oregon on workforce development for people with disabilities, much like the Kentucky Work Matters Task Force convened by CSG. The bill did not pass; however, the idea for a workgroup resulted from the desire to convene state officials around disability employment. When asked about the importance of the Work Matters and the impact it could have for states Whisnant said,

I would tell every legislator 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.”

Additional stakeholders in the workgroup meeting included representatives from the Oregon Commission for the Blind, the Oregon Disabilities Commission, and the Oregon Supported Employment Center for Excellence. At a previous meeting, workgroup members identified the need to bring in national experts on disability employment to provide examples of what other states are doing to support employment for people with disabilities in hopes that Oregon can model innovative policies. CSG, NCSL and SEED together provided this national perspective to the workgroup.

Based on technical assistance, the workgroup will submit two or three legislative placeholders for the upcoming 2019 session. Oregon is interested in exploring legislation to pilot a program that would mirror Washington’s COHE model for supporting workers with occupation-related injuries or illnesses. The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries funds the Centers of Occupational Health and Education (COHE), which provide guidance for medical providers to apply occupational health best practices for individuals with work-related health conditions. COHE also employ health service coordinators, or HSCs, who are integral to the success of the COHE model. HSCs work directly with injured workers, employers, healthcare providers, and other program participants to coordinate care for the injured workers.

An additional legislative consideration for the workgroup included adding affirmative action language in statute for workers who contract with the state. Currently, Oregon has affirmative action language for state employees, but not for the private sector. Adding affirmative action language in statute that includes people with disabilities would prohibit private businesses who contract with the state from discriminating against people with disabilities.

As Oregon continues to prioritize this area of workforce development, this workgroup and technical assistance partnership show how collaboration is crucial to success in policy development.

“I was very encouraged when I saw CSG and NCSL were doing work around this issue,” said Whisnant. “As a legislator I really appreciated the collaboration. It’s very important for more than one legislative group to help states by working together like this.”

CSG will continue to provide technical assistance to states who want national expertise on disability employment to help this population receive the employment opportunities that are often not afforded to them.