State hiring fewer disabled, and bills seek to change that

Father of moderately disabled college graduate says state should set example

Staff writerJanuary 23, 2014 

The number of state employees with disabilities has steadily declined over the years, but Thurston County resident Lawrence Jacobson hopes to reverse the trend by rewriting the law.

His son, Andy Jacobson, has applied for 32 state government jobs since graduating from The Evergreen State College in September, where he studied statistics and environmental science. Positions have ranged from janitor and office assistant to parking enforcement and library work. So far, no interviews.

Andy Jacobson, 25, has suffered from right brain encephalitis and mild autism his entire life. As a result, he has difficulty with motor skills and reading. Other health issues have been a barrier to employment. His only paid job experience involves cleaning outhouses and picking up garbage for the U.S. Forest Service.

The job hunt has frustrated the father and the son. Lawrence Jacobson said the state should take the lead and set an example for employing people with disabilities.

“If you don’t get your first job, how do you get your second job?” said Jacobson, who drafted a bill that’s working its way through the Legislature. “We’re knocking on every door.”

Known as the state employment disability parity act, the bill is aimed at creating more jobs in the state workforce for people with disabilities. Provisions include mandatory reporting of employees with disabilities along with establishing opportunities for internships and entry-level employment.

Sponsored by State Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, the first reading for House Bill 2450 was Jan. 17. This week, Senate Bill 6329, sponsored by State Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, was referred to the health care committee.

The state government’s total workforce is 59,439 employees. Of that total, about 3.2 percent have a disability, said Toby Olson, executive secretary of the Governor’s Committee on Disability Issues and Employment. That number is down from a high of about 6.8 percent during former Gov. Mike Lowry’s tenure in the mid-1990s.

In 2013, Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order that established a Disability Employment Task Force. Inslee set a goal to raise the number of state government employees with a disability to 5 percent by June 2017.

Today, about 36 percent of Washington’s 442,000 working-age people with disabilities are employed.

“That is a terrible waste of talent, energy and ability that could be contributing to our economy,” said Olson, adding that Jacobson’s effort is drawing attention to the issue. “At a minimum, the bills will be helpful in that they’ll create an opportunity to start having a discussion in the Legislature about these issues.”

The governor’s task force is expected to develop initiatives over the course of 2014 for possible legislation next year, Olson said. One strategy includes analyzing jobs in the state sector to determine whether certain tasks, such as clerical work, could be split off into new jobs that actually increase a state agency’s efficiency.

Marcie Osborne, executive director of the Community Employment Alliance, was trying to hunt down the bill’s author this week. She said the bills complement the task force’s goals and look like something her nonprofit organization would pursue.

“We have seen a decline in the number of people with disabilities represented in state employment,” she said. “I think they’re great bills.”

Morningside Mission is a nonprofit organization that plays matchmaker between employers and people with disabilities. Morningside mostly works with private employers but has placed several people in state government jobs.

The biggest barrier to employment for the disabled is the unknown, said Jim Larson, president and CEO of Morningside. For example, potential employers sometimes assume that people with disabilities pose a safety hazard or are prone to tardiness.

“A lot of people don’t have direct exposure with disabilities,” he said, adding that most employers report that Morningside’s clients perform at or above standards. “Our job is to minimize the fear.”

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869

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