The city of St. Paul is looking for new ways to increase the number of people with disabilities who get jobs on city contracts after years of failing to meet its goals in that area.
Contractors responding to a 2012 inquiry from St. Paul reported less than 1 percent of their employees identified themselves as disabled. The city's goal was 10 percent, a target it first set in 2006.
Until last year, St. Paul had no idea how far it had fallen short of its goal. The city did not collect data on how many people with disabilities worked for its contractors.
"I'm not sure that we've actually accomplished anything in 10 years," said Carol Rydell, a project manager with Kaposia, a non-profit organization that's worked with St. Paul for the last decade to increase opportunities for people with disabilities. "It is depressing."
In at least one respect, St. Paul has been a leader on the issue. Most cities don't set targets for hiring people with disabilities. But St. Paul's goal is just that: a goal.
Unlike its affirmative action programs for women and minorities, the goal for hiring employees with disabilities is strictly voluntary. There are no consequences for contractors who fail to meet it, which would be almost all of them. Of more than 250 city contractors, nine met the disability hiring goal last year.
"It's difficult to say whether the contractors are really trying," said Jessi Kingston, who was hired last year to direct St. Paul's office of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity.
"Perhaps historically we haven't been putting as much emphasis on ensuring that they are making strides in hiring people with disabilities. And so now we're really changing that focus," she said.
St. Paul is forming a committee to study the issue over the summer. It will issue recommendations in the fall.
MPR News spoke with several city contractors, mostly in construction-related fields. One contractor called the goal "unrealistic," and a number questioned whether they would be able to find employees with disabilities capable of doing physically demanding construction work.
STATE PROGRAM A BIG HELP FOR SOME
But for employers who want to add people with disabilities to their workforce, the state of Minnesota can help.
On the factory floor of JEM Technical in Long Lake, Christopher Smith doesn't hear any of cacophonous noise audible to other machinists.
"I'm completely deaf since I was born," he said, speaking through a sign language interpreter.
After finishing a program at St. Paul College, Smith spent three years looking for a job like this. Last summer he got an email from Vocational Rehabilitation Services, a state program that helps people with disabilities train for and find jobs. Smith was connected with an internship at JEM. Three months later, the internship turned into a full-time job.
"I was really excited," Smith said, speaking through a sign language interpreter. "I was a lot more excited than I even expected I would be."
Vocational Rehabilitation Services places about 2,500 Minnesotans in jobs each year. The program receives 8,000 new applications annually from people looking for work.
St. Paul's hiring, in numbers Hiring goal 10% Actual percentage (2012) < 1% Total city contractors 255 Number who met goal 9 Full-time city employees 2,652 Number with disabilities 92 Percentage 3.5%
Source: City of St. Paul
"A lot of employers, they're just not going to give somebody a chance that is deaf," said Ron Adams, an employment coordinator at Vocational Rehabilitation Services who helped Smith get the job. "I run into that all the time."
Nationally, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is about 13 percent -- almost twice the unemployment rate overall. That's why the Obama administration has proposed instituting disability hiring goals for federal contractors, much like St. Paul did in 2006.
The Associated General Contractors of America opposes the proposed rule. It argues expanding affirmative action to include people with disabilities will be costly for the construction industry -- a sector of the economy that is already suffering.
"The industry went from a trillion-dollar industry five years ago to $800 billion-a-year that lost over 2 million jobs in five years," spokesman Brian Turmail said. "No one's discriminating against these folks. It's just that you can't offer jobs you don't have."
But Rydell, who is critical of St. Paul's failure to meet its hiring goals, sees the proposed federal rule as a reason for optimism. If the Obama administration implements it, she hopes it can bring about change in the culture.
"The more people with disabilities who are employed, the more our view of disability changes. Because each person who gets a job affects that employer, the co-workers, customers, vendors," Rydell said. "People with disabilities are the best ambassadors in terms of the capabilities of people with disabilities in the workforce."
Rydell adds that as St. Paul's experience shows, culture change is still a long way off.