New N.J. law aims to help people with disabilities find and keep state jobs

The New Jersey State House is seen in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The New Jersey State House is seen in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

New Jersey state agencies are preparing to implement more robust strategies to recruit workers with disabilities in compliance with a new law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy last week to help people find and maintain steady employment.

The new law requires the state’s Division of Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action and Civil Service Commission to develop a program to increase awareness of state employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The affirmative action officer of each state agency will be required to manage the program.

The new initiative, called the “State As A Model Employer of People With Disabilities” program, or SAME, was sponsored by state Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-39).

“It really was inspired by my own experiences growing up and seeing a loved one struggle themselves,” Schepisi said.

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The SAME program will need to find ways to “remove barriers to the application and hiring process, and create mechanisms to increase retention rates” for people with disabilities employed by the state, according to the law.

“I think it’s really important for us as a state to recognize that it’s an underserved population and to provide opportunity and job training and advancements for our most vulnerable residents,” Schepisi said.

Javier Robles is the chair of the New Jersey Disabilities COVID-19 Action Committee, and a professor at Rutgers University. He is also the director of the Center For Disability Sports, Health and Wellness and co-chair of the university’s diversity studies committee.

He supported the new law as it made its way through the Legislature.

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“I think the fact that these lawmakers got together in the Assembly and Senate and actually decided to do something about an issue that is constantly plaguing … the disability community is amazing,” Robles said.

Robles said people with disabilities have long faced employment and other challenges that were only exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. For example, many people could no longer receive personal care assistance because they “didn’t want to leave the house” or they were “scared to have someone in their house,” he said. Robles said people also had issues using government-issued benefits like SNAP for online services like food delivery.

According to a 2018 report, the employment rate for non-institutionalized working-age adults with disabilities in New Jersey was just 37.7%.

In 2020, the national employment rate for adults with disabilities dropped to 17.9%.

Nearly 10% of people in New Jersey live with a disability.

Robles said there are several barriers to employment for people with disabilities who want to work — including a lack of accessible public transit options in several parts of the state, particularly in South Jersey, and hurdles to obtaining a comprehensive education.

The new law would also require the state to establish a recruitment and referral program with colleges and universities. Robles said the program could also consider partnering with high schools.

“People with disabilities don’t graduate at the same rates that people who don’t have disabilities, and we know that education plays a big part in whether or not eventually you are employed,” he said.

Ultimately, Robles thinks the SAME program can be a significant step in the right direction, but he warned that “bureaucracy” could lead to further issues.

For example, he said the program could lead to problems for people “if it doesn’t take into account that someone who’s blind who goes to a state website needs special software” and if the content is too difficult to understand for people who may have intellectual disabilities.

The law allows the SAME program to “use fast track hiring authority and advancement” to allow state agencies to consider disability status during the hiring and promotion process; create “mentoring, internship, or similar work-based learning experiences;” and also requires quarterly progress reports made available to the public.

Schepisi said she intends to ensure that state agencies properly implement the program.

“I think one of the challenges is just going to be for all of us that sponsored the legislation to stay on top of it, and to make sure that it isn’t something that gets lost in the shuffle,” Schepisi said. “And that the program does get developed within a reasonable period of time, and that the appropriate outreach is done.”

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