Maine has too few workers to attract new businesses and to support its aging population. At the same time, a significant number of people who could be employed are not: Maine has one of the lowest workforce participation rates in the nation among its disabled population.
Leaving these residents out of the workforce is bad for the state’s stagnant economy and bad for those with mental and physical impairments who would like to be active participants in their communities.
In 2013, 31 percent of working-age disabled adults were in the Maine workforce, according to the Annual Disability Statistics Compendium, compiled by Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire. The highest rate, nearly 53 percent, was in North Dakota.
Maine had the largest gap in the nation between its overall adult workplace participation (78.8 percent) and the participation rate of disabled adults in 2013. The percentage of adults in Maine with disabilities — 15.5 percent — is higher than the national average of 10 percent.
Maine’s workforce is shrinking, in some cases leaving businesses scrambling to find workers. Two years ago, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Development Foundation issued a call to grow the state’s workforce by 65,000 by 2020 in part through greater workforce participation among seniors, veterans and those with disabilities.
In the report “ Making Maine Work: Growing Maine’s Workforce,” the organizations said businesses should increase workforce participation among the disabled to 50 percent by 2020, representing 10,000 more people in the Maine workforce.
This is an achievable goal, but to get there it will take more than good intentions. Maine needs a concrete plan with one entity in charge of setting priorities, advocating for funding and policy changes — if needed — and tracking progress.
Many of the state’s with high rates of workforce participation among the disabled, such as North Dakota and South Dakota, have very low unemployment rates and high demand for workers. Still, North Dakota also offers tax credits and other financial incentives to support businesses that hire disabled workers.
This is a model worth further consideration.
Even without a concrete plan to encourage more employment among disabled adults, there are some success stories that could be starting points for such a state plan. Maine’s Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation has placed nearly twice as many disabled workers this year as it did in 2010. In addition, the Department of Labor encourages businesses looking for workers to be more open to considering those with disabilities. The focus should be on what people can do, not what they can’t, said Julie Rabinowitz, the department’s spokeswoman.
Volk Packaging Corp. in Biddeford is cited as a state leader in employment of the disabled. The small company — owned by state Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, and her husband, Derek — employs four people with disabilities: one is deaf, one is blind and two are on the autism spectrum. The accommodations they require are “insignificant to the business but extremely important to the person with the disability,” Volk said in an email. They might include allowing a worker extra time to finish projects or extra training.
But Volk Packaging hired only one of these employees through a state agency tasked with finding employment for the disabled. Volk encouraged the many state and private entities working in this area to better cooperate and to set priorities for state action.
As for lawmakers, sometimes they have to be aware of the unintended consequences of otherwise well-intentioned initiatives, said Bonnie-Jean Brooks, president and CEO of OHI, an agency that works with individuals with autism, intellectual disabilities and mental illness. Earlier this year, for example, a bill, sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, sought to eliminate the sub-minimum wage that is paid to some disabled workers. However, lawmakers learned that without this wage, those with severe disabilities could lose their employment and community inclusion opportunities.
The bill was carried over to the legislative session that begins in January with the expectation that lawmakers would amend it to better assist disabled workers. It could become an important vehicle for new approaches to growing Maine’s workforce by including more workers with disabilities.