More than words: Taking Arizona’s Employment First philosophy from theory to practice

State Sen. Steve Kaiser, R-Phoenix, recently presented a resolution to his Senate colleagues that might be one of the most important pieces of business the Legislature attends to this session. It didn’t assert the need for a balanced budget or a secure border or call for passage of a bill that would divide supporters and opponents along partisan lines. What it did was affirm that every person, regardless of ability, should have the right to pursue meaningful work that is essential so that individuals with disabilities in Arizona can thrive.

The first few lines of Sen. Kaiser’s resolution articulate a goal that should be obvious to anyone and yet remains frustratingly elusive. “Every Arizonan should have the opportunity to participate in the workforce, including those who have disabilities.”

The resolution amplifies the goals of an Executive Order signed in 2017 that designates Arizona as an “Employment First” state.

Employment First isn’t a law or a single policy or regulation. Rather, it’s a statement to guide how Arizona should strive to ensure that employment should always be the first option for individuals with disabilities, and that the state government should be a standard-setter in its role as an employer.

There are myriad programs designed to support Arizonans with disabilities who are trying to find employment, some more successful than others. The Employment First philosophy is that individuals with disabilities should be able to pursue “competitive, integrated employment,” which is different from employment in self-contained work environments, sometimes called sheltered workshops, typically characterized by tedious, low-skill labor that rarely matches the employee’s interests and abilities and where the employee does not have the chance to learn new skills from coworkers that could lead to new opportunities on the career ladder. What should be just a career start is too often a destination.

Employment First argues that support agencies and employers shouldn’t make assumptions about a person’s interests or job satisfaction, especially if that person is non-verbal or has limited verbal capacity. As I’ve learned from disability community advocate Karla Phillips-Krivickas, the founder of Think Inclusion, the only assumption we should make about people with disabilities in the workplace is to assume competence; decisions about employment and the next steps on a career path can flow from there.

Helping all Arizonans regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities find fulfilling work and reach their God-given potential should be a goal in and of itself. It’s the right thing to do. But if you’re more likely to be persuaded by economic arguments, consider the state of the American labor market, where the labor force participation rate has been falling for two decades. A summary of a report released last fall by the Bureau of Labor Statistics depressingly finds that “people have an overall lower willingness to work.” Employers need workers, yet they’re getting harder to find, and the broader economy sputters as a result.

But Sen. Kaiser’s resolution points to the thousands of Arizonans who are sitting on the sidelines ready to join the labor force. In 2019, out of 903,268 Arizonans with a disability, only 39% of them were employed. Agencies engaged in Vocational Rehabilitation – services designed to help individuals secure a job – see less than a third of their cases end in employment. Less than a quarter of individuals “receiving services from the Division of Developmental Disabilities were participating in competitive, integrated employment,” those jobs where the pay, benefits, and duties are similar among those with and without disabilities. There are programs like Freedom to Work administered by the state’s Medicaid agency and Benefits 2 Work that encourage Arizonans to secure work without fear of losing health coverage or benefit income, but the trick is getting the job in the first place.

Other states have adopted the Employment First principles, but with mixed results. The goal, as Karla explains, isn’t just for a state to affirm its belief in Employment First, but to improve employment outcomes for people with disabilities, which is what motivated Sen. Kaiser to get involved. Standing up a new office or task force or study committee is of little help if more individuals with disabilities aren’t joining the workforce.

The resolution is an important step for lawmakers to better understand the very real challenges facing individuals with disabilities in their pursuit of meaningful work, our labor force constraints, and the needs of employers who might want to tap a new segment of workers, but who don’t know where to start or what questions to ask. Future legislative sessions will hopefully see legislation designed to tackle these employment roadblocks.

There are thousands of Arizonans who are ready and willing and want to work. There are employers who would love to welcome those potential employees into their workplace. Let’s help both the jobseekers and the employers by embracing the goals articulated by Sen. Kaiser’s resolution.

Danny Seiden is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry

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