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More disabled workers on the job in Mississippi

As the state’s labor market remains tight, more disabled employees are being mainstreamed into the workforce. Coincidence? Not exactly.

“Economic development folks are looking around the state at every possible employment resource, and certainly the disabilities community represents one of those that’s untapped,” said Bob McDonald, Workforce Investment Act coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services.

To provide incentives to hire disabled employees, Congress recently reauthorized the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) Program in the omnibus tax bill. Employers in Mississippi that hire a person with a disability through the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services is eligible to receive a federal tax credit of up to 40% (up to $2,400 of actual credit) of the first $6,000 of the employee’s wages during the first 12 months of each new qualified hire. The U.S. Congress must reauthorize the WOTC annually. Qualified workers must work for at least 400 hours or 180 days or the employer cannot claim credit on that employee.

“We find that primarily the smaller businesses don’t know about this program,” said McDonald. “Corporations know about it because a service provides information, and a corporate person is assigned to help with forms. Mom-and-pops and smaller operations usually have to be informed about the process of registering for it.”

In 1998, the total disabled population in Mississippi was 286,000. Of that number, roughly 171,000 were of working age and had a work disability. Of those, 20,000 received vocational rehabilitation services. Of that 20,000, MDRS placed approximately 4,500 into jobs, McDonald said.

“That represents a significant pool of employees that businesses need to know about,” he said.

To become certified through MDRS, disabled employees must register with the local employment or job service office. Employers call their local vocational rehabilitation district office and are referred to counselors with caseloads. Counselors bring the two parties together and may accompany the disabled employee on the job interview, assist with communication, if needed, assist the prospective employer with adapting workspace and answer questions either party may have.

“Employers are our clients, too,” McDonald said. “It’s our job to bring both parties together, if it’s the right fit.”

Even though specific employer groups aren’t targeted, most disabled employees possess computer skills that many businesses see as a good match, he said.

“We do a lot of individualized job development based on the vocational goals of the individual,” he said. “Many people with physical disabilities work well with assisted technology devices. That’s a wide open field for our clients.”

A common misconception about hiring disabled employees is that adapting accommodations for them will be “an enormous expense,” McDonald said.

“There’s a lot of ungrounded fear among employers about the expense involved,” he said. “According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are required to provide ‘reasonable’ accommodations requested by the employee. But we’ve found that it doesn’t usually turn out to be much more than something very reasonable and affordable, such as raising a desk so a wheelchair can slide underneath. There are other sources of funding for people to get assisted devices for employment. Employers don’t need to be afraid that it will cost them a lot of money.”

Another misconception is the stigmatism linked to disabled employees, McDonald said.

“Whether disabled by injury or by birth, disabled employees are still very capable, dedicated people and are very loyal to employers,” he said. “Many of them have not had opportunities in life to be included in the employment community, and other areas, such as social. To them, a job becomes more than just a paycheck. It becomes a quality of life for the individual. It gives them something to connect to. As a result, disabled employees feel they’re beginning to contribute to society and want to give something back as a tax-paying citizen, to the economy of the state.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com, mbj@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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