Booming Economy Must Include Workers with Disabilities
October is National Disability Employment Awareness month and an important reminder that a strong economy is good for workers at all skill levels and in many different circumstances. Workers with disabilities are benefiting from more opportunities than ever before, but more can be done to support them.
The origins of National Disability Employment Awareness Month can be traced to 1945. In the 70 years since, much has changed about how, when and where people with disabilities are able to work. It is these advancements and contributions that are celebrated as part of this month. In the current strong economy, employers are hiring and retaining more people with disabilities. This is good news. But there is room to do more.
The unemployment rate for these workers is still nearly double the national average of 3.7 percent. That’s the case even though the monthly employment data do not account for 8.5 million former workers who receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits or the millions more who receive Social Security Income (SSI). Some of these people want to rejoin the workforce if they are able to but ask for guidance to find their way through the complicated Social Security Administration (SSA) rules for returning to work and protecting their benefits should they not succeed.
That’s where work incentive programs like Ticket to Work (TTW) come in. TTW operates within the SSA and helps beneficiaries find jobs again and move off benefits when they are ready. TTW and other work incentive programs give beneficiaries personalized return to work planning, benefit coordination, vocational guidance and job interview and placement assistance. SSA authorizes public and private Employment Networks (ENs) to provide these services at no cost to Social Security beneficiaries throughout their return-to-work process. These programs also help individuals navigate the challenges of reporting their sometimes stop-and-start earnings to SSA to minimize overpayments and protecting their benefits while they attempt to return to the workforce.
The TTW program was established by Congress in 1999 and participation has ticked up in recent years. But the program remains underutilized. In New York, for example, more than 830,000 people are eligible to participate in the program, but only 26,000 currently benefit from it. This, unfortunately, is not surprising. According to the SSA, only 30 percent of beneficiaries know that the TTW program exists and only 37 percent are aware they can participate in a Trial Work Period that protects their benefits while they try to work again. In a job market this strong, more potential workers need to be made aware of the support available to them.
Disability beneficiaries should be informed that they can get return to work assistance when they first apply for Social Security disability benefits. In addition, employers should be told about the program so they know that both a local and a national talent pool is available to them. The SSA should prioritize return to work and benefits counseling programs so that more beneficiaries can make the transition to employment when they are ready and medically able.
As we reflect on the progress of the past seven decades, there is much to be proud of. At the same time, tremendous opportunities lie ahead. Federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle should embrace these common-sense improvements. Both Democrats and Republicans can agree that everyone should have the chance to participate and succeed in a thriving economy. Lawmakers would be wise to work together to make that happen. Lowering the barriers and unemployment rate for workers with disabilities will benefit us all.
Jim Allsup is the founder and CEO of Allsup, an authorized Employment Network and provider of Social Security Disability representation services in New York and across the country and member of the Secure Work Coalition.