A major system change, which has been gaining momentum for several years, is dramatically transforming — and disrupting — a large and complex national network of employment services for individuals with disabilities, including those in Minnesota.

The magnitude of the current transformation is tantamount to what occurred in the 1970s and ’80s, when state hospitals and institutions were closed, and it aligns closely with the mandates and goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It represents in many ways the next major shift in the long-term evolution of the disability services system, driven by an urgent nationwide commitment to achieving full inclusion of people with disabilities, including those with the most significant disabilities.

An article in the Aug. 18 Star Tribune (“Crunch time on better pay for disabled”) drew particular attention to the role of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) in implementing new federal requirements that place limits on paying people with disabilities less than the minimum wage. The article paints an incomplete and, in some instances, misleading, picture of the work the state is doing and suggests that DEED is ill-prepared and perhaps unable to implement the new rules.

That’s a false impression.

Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS), a division of DEED, has been preparing to implement the new rules since the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was signed into law by President Obama in July 2014. VRS has been in frequent contact with the constituencies most affected by the new rule, including the organizations that hold subminimum wage certificates. VRS has made it a point to provide as much accurate information as it can, in as timely a way as possible.

A complication of WIOA is that two federal agencies have authority over the implementation of the law — and the two agencies have at times issued conflicting guidance on how and what must be done. VRS has the responsibility to provide counseling services and is accountable to the U.S. Department of Education, while organizations that pay less than the minimum wage to individuals with disabilities are accountable to the U.S. Department of Labor, which issues the subminimum wage certificates.

VRS has no enforcement authority over the new rules, as was suggested in the article. VRS is responsible for providing services when requested. Enforcement is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Labor.

The VRS plan for implementing the new rules began this week and will be rolled out statewide over the course of the next few months. Under the new rules, a person who was working in a facility that pays a subminimum wage before the effective date of July 22, 2016 (15,000-plus individuals here in Minnesota) must receive services one time before July 22, 2017, and annually thereafter. The plan is admittedly ambitious, because it has to be; it’s a very big deal.

We won’t pretend that this is going to be easy. The Star Tribune article made that much abundantly clear. I believe that we all can agree on the vision expressed in the new law, but it’s important to understand that the requirements amount to a very large unfunded mandate that must be implemented by DEED using existing resources.

We cannot lose sight of the real reason for all of this. It’s not about programs, policies, regulations or rules. It’s about giving people with disabilities, including those with the most significant disabilities, a true and real choice about how and where they want to live, whether and where they want to work. It’s about providing the opportunity, as envisioned in the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act, for full inclusion in the communities of their choice.

 

Shawntera Hardy is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.