How can Maine reduce the number of residents receiving government assistance and help them out of poverty? It can improve pathways to work, especially for people with physical and learning disabilities. Improving access to work requires increased collaboration among government agencies and the private sector. And Maine can learn from successful initiatives where businesses have made large, focused efforts to train and hire workers with disabilities and seen productivity increases among all employees.
Maine House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, recently submitted legislation to require the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to do more to help people make the transition from welfare to work. The proposal would require caseworkers to perform a more comprehensive assessment of Maine residents receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — which aims to help keep children in their home while the family is temporarily unable to support itself — to better identify the skills they need to become self-sufficient.
The step should have been taken long ago, but it is especially important now that Gov. Paul LePage’s budget, passed in 2011, imposes a five-year lifetime limit for TANF recipients. Many people on TANF are working, but they, and the overall economy, would benefit, of course, by transitioning fully to a job — or to training that will help them obtain a permanent job in the future. The TANF program is not specifically directed toward people with disabilities, but a 2010 survey of Maine recipients showed that 67 percent of all households had at least one family member with a disability.
DHHS’ collaboration with community agencies will be key in getting people, particularly those with disabilities who can work, to work. Businesses also have an essential role to play.
Take the case of the drugstore chain Walgreens. In 2002, Randy Lewis, senior vice president of supply chain and logistics, challenged the company and its stakeholders to think differently about hiring and increase the number of employees with disabilities — keeping standards and pay equal for all. Walgreens set a goal: For the new distribution centers it was planning to open, one-third of workers would have disabilities — particularly intellectual and developmental disabilities. It then chose states — South Carolina and Connecticut — in part based on their desire to help the company recruit and train these employees.
The company and its partners, which included local agencies, drew pools of potential workers and set up training centers to teach them the job knowledge and “soft” skills they would need. They arranged the distribution centers to be friendly to people with disabilities — such as with adjustable workstations, an easier-to-use computer interface and less heavy lifting — which, in the end, made work more efficient for all distribution center employees.
Operations in South Carolina began in January 2007 and in Connecticut in 2009. The endeavor was an ambitious one which required a lot of effort and coordination between different groups.
But it worked. Walgreens reported that absenteeism improved, along with safety statistics. And workers were more efficient than at other distribution center locations. Not only did the company change its practices to benefit a population severely in need of work, it helped its bottom line. It also earned national recognition: Walgreens was named 2012 Employer of the Year by the U.S. Business Leadership Network.
Making such changes to business operations requires vision, dedication and an understanding that people with disabilities can excel in their jobs and be a positive influence on their co-workers’ own job performance. Maine could certainly benefit from a perception change. It has a greater percentage of people with disabilities than the nation: From 2008 to 2010, about 13 percent of Maine’s working-age adults had one or more disability, according to the Maine Department of Labor, while the proportion for the United States was an estimated 10 percent.
And adults with disabilities are less likely to be employed. An average of 35 percent of working-age Maine residents with disabilities were employed from 2008 to 2010, compared with 79 percent of those with no disability. In Maine, adults with disabilities are nearly three times as likely to live in poverty.
Maine government can ease residents’ transition away from assistance and toward further education or work. But in the end, an employer must be on the other side to receive them. Though many businesses already employ workers with disabilities, many more can open their minds, and their doors, to a new approach that has the potential to benefit not just the workers but the state.