A free, untapped resource to land workers

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There are 16 locations of the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, and the staff helped nearly 10,000 people with disabilities get a job last year.

“Our mission is to assist Pennsylvanians with disabilities to secure and maintain employment and independence,” said Janell J. Shaffer-Yoder, district administrator at the Reading Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry.

A consequence of that mission, in turn, is the potential for benefits for employers, such as tax breaks and motivated and reliable workers.

According to Shaffer-Yoder, workers with disabilities want to work, so they tend to be loyal and have a higher retention rate.

“Studies have been done that show that people with disabilities work great,” she said. “They have better attendance and fewer turnovers.”

The service is free for employers, who also can benefit from tax breaks when they hire from this largely untapped resource with job safety statistics similar to, or better than average, when compared to their nondisabled counterparts, she said.

There also are benefits to diversity in the workplace for contractors who work with the government, and it’s easier to attract disabled customers when they see counterparts on the staff.

“There are a lot of things that we do in terms of employer services,” said Carole J. Homolash, rehabilitation counselor and employer services and business liaison with the Reading OVR office. “Basically what we do is offer a talent pool of prescreened, qualified-ready candidates.”

Much of what the staff does is seek job descriptions from employers and help to find or train candidates to meet the business’ needs. One way to test the waters is to arrange an internship for the candidate with the prospective employer.

But sometimes the staff helps company-trained employees who have been sick or injured to overcome a new disability or challenge.

“An employer can come to us when they’re looking to fill openings and also to help retain existing workers,” Homolash said. “So an employer can look to us for a variety of things to fill positions or to retain workers whenever they develop an injury or illness.”

Employers are sometimes surprised what workers with disabilities can do, particularly when they are proficient using tools created under universal design, originally made for use by the disabled but now in common usage. Examples include the Livescribe Smartpens for taking notes or the Dragon voice recognition software in use on many smartphones.

“They may bring in some knowledge about technology or other ways of doing things that ends up being a great benefit to the company,” Homolash said.

Not only will the employer gain a better understanding for the world in which those with disabilities live, but the company gets tax breaks and can attract customers with disabilities as word gets out to the disabled community.

“An employer who hires an OVR-referred candidate will be eligible for [a] tax credit,” Homolash said, adding that she also advises employers to modify the workplace for the disabled to entice more people to frequent their business.

“All are no-cost services that we offer to employers,” she said.

Sometimes an employer has invested a great deal of time and money training a key employee only to find that person has narrowly survived a major vehicle accident or illness such as a stroke.

The OVR staff is networked and qualified to help the person get special training to return to work and to help the business accommodate the employee’s new needs, saving the company’s investment.

“We can advise with information on the American with Disabilities Act,” Shaffer-Yoder said. “We can provide them with some of that information, and if we don’t have answers we can guide them to other resources.”

According to Homolash, more than half of the businesses in and around Berks County are federal contractors who must meet certain goals by showing diversity in the workforce.

The OVR can be an employer’s best resource.

“There’s no need to be concerned about hiring people with disabilities because they’re already out there and working,” Homolash said. “I believe the current goal is around 2 percent of the federal contractors workforce should be showing diversity, in particular in people with disabilities, and there’s legislation in Washington that could go up to around 7 percent.”

There is a wide variety of talent from which to choose that stretches from the unskilled worker to a highly trained and specialized employee.

“It’s just a hidden part of the market, and people with disabilities are already experienced problem-solvers. Our goal is to go in and help get or keep a job,” Homolash said. “If they [employers] hire a candidate that’s an OVR referral, I’m available for ongoing support and consultation, if needed.”

According to the OVR staff, some of the large employers who use OVR-referred employees include Lowe’s, CVS and Hershey Co.

“It’s challenging every day, but it’s rewarding every day,” said Homolash, who has been an OVR counselor for about 20 years. “The best part of my job is when somebody tells me that they just got hired.

“The second best part of my job is seeing somebody in the community a year later or two years later, and they’re still working.”

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