The State of Employment: Collaboration, Change and Solutions Amid COVID-19
On June 16, 2020, Governor Brian Kemp announced Chris Wells as the new executive director of the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency (GVRA). The agency has been undergoing re-organization for the past five years, meaning it has been in a state of perpetual change.
Before Wells’ arrival, GVRA began a major reorganization after years of criticism. The agency, which serves as Georgia’s main employment services resource for people with disabilities, conducted an independent review that identified major problems, including a problematic internal culture, low case closure rate, too many managers and too few well-trained agents.
There have been four executive directors at GVRA in the last five years. Wells’ two predecessors similarly reorganized the agency under the direction of outside consultants. Wells is trying to manage the restructuring while keeping clients safe in a pandemic, in part by using technology and working with providers to offer virtual services. Mainly, he’s working to return the agency to full service as a reformed body, more accessible and collaborative moving forward.
The widespread, existing issue of underemployment for people with disabilities has been exacerbated by the turmoil of COVID-19, but many advocates and government administrators see opportunities in a time of disruption and overhaul.
“I think that agencies are starting to think about where we can move resources to have the greatest impact on somebody’s life,” said Eric Jacobson, the executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD).
Since July, GVRA has updated its provider manual, case management system and customer care line. “That way, when we do come out of the pandemic, we’ve addressed some of the concerns from a data-driven analysis perspective,” Wells said.
Advocates in Georgia’s disability community have long pointed to employment as an area in need of improvement, as many individuals have trouble finding effective and accessible employment supports such as job development and job coaching. As with many disability services, opportunities vary by location, and no two people are the same.
Some individuals don’t seek state assistance, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t on their own path forward. In 2010, Jenna Quigley and Donna Williams started a greeting card business called Just for You Card Art. The best friends had a shared passion and idea: a way to make money doing what they already found fun and relaxing.
With help from parents and organizations, the two began making cards and fulfilling orders that ranged from birthday greeting cards to wedding invitations. Together, Quigley and Williams traveled to present at conferences and meet prospective customers.
By early 2020, both had settled into part-time restaurant jobs. Before the pandemic picked up, they had been receiving orders for hundreds of cards, but the process wasn’t as relaxing anymore. Quigley and Williams, enjoying their new jobs, decided the card business had naturally run its course, and they dissolved the company.
“We loved doing it,” Quigley said. “My favorite part was to show them to people. I made a lot of people’s day – to be happy, to be surprised.”
Still, the two catch up constantly on Zoom. Williams is back working as a barista at BrewAble Cafe, and Quigley is waiting to return to her job at Pancake Social until it’s a little safer. She’s been visiting the restaurant for takeout, and the manager calls her to check in.
Unfortunately, not everyone has been able to secure work through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Since the start of the crisis, almost one million Americans with disabilities have lost their jobs, according to the New Hampshire University Institute on Disability, and other data shows that those with disabilities have been hit harder than others.
Before the pandemic, people with disabilities were more than twice as likely to be unemployed than those without a disability. In February, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the unemployment rate for people with disabilities in the working-age population was 7.3 percent. In July, the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) released unpublished BLS data showing the unemployment rate had risen to 14.8 percent for people with disabilities who were working before the pandemic. According to BLS, one in five workers with a disability have lost their jobs since March, versus one in seven of the broader working population.
A variety of agencies, institutions and organizations are tasked with empowering individuals on their journey to independent living, and underemployment has long been a key advocacy issue. In order to meet the needs of a population as large and heterogeneous as the disability community, agencies need to be flexible and collaborative.
As government entities face changing circumstances, they have the opportunity to review priorities and reassess best practices. Current interruptions to services are felt by both providers and those needing support. It is more critical than ever for all service systems to work together in order to meet the changing needs of the communities they serve; unfortunately, these systems aren’t always in alignment.
“We have to make sure that we can help people exist in this kind-of new climate: telework, entrepreneurship, micro-enterprise,” said Doug Crandell, an expert in customized employment and disability employment policy at the Institute on Human Development and Disability (IHDD) at University of Georgia. “All of that is possible, but we’ve got to align what we’re doing. And right now, if a person asks for self-employment or micro-enterprise support at Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) or GVRA, they’re likely not going to get it.”
One agency won’t single-handedly solve underemployment for folks with disabilities, but they can improve their services to make a stronger impact. DBHDD oversees a network of approximately 700 community-based service providers for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as the administration of COMP and NOW Waivers.
Ultimately, DBHDD connects people to services, and Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald recently announced an effort to prioritize employment. Wells of GVRA recognizes his agency’s past shortcomings, and he also has a different vision moving forward.
In 2018, the Georgia General Assembly passed House Bill 831, Georgia’s Employment First Act, which established the state as one where competitive, integrated employment is the “first and preferred” option for people with disabilities, regardless of the severity of the disability. The legislation also created the Employment First Council (EFC), which is federally funded.
“They have the legislative authority to create that set of recommendations, give it to the governor, give it to the legislature, and push policies that are going to be more friendly towards getting people work,” said Jacobson, who sits on the council.
The EFC is made up of 14 individuals with disabilities, ties to the community or involvement in state agencies serving the community. Chaired by the executive director of GVRA, now Wells, the council meets quarterly and releases an annual report. The report is typically released in October, but it will be delayed this year.
Wells says the council needs a strategic plan moving forward, and they’ve moved to establish one when they meet again in October. Other members also say now is the time, when nothing is normal, to create a shared outlook.
“I think we have to keep our eye on the goal,” said John Wells, the vice chair of the EFC (no relation to Chris Wells). “We are transitioning from sitting at home, or sitting in day services, to employment. Everybody needs to be on the same page; everybody needs to coordinate their efforts.”
Many professionals and advocates around the state are working to facilitate employment in a changing landscape. Fitzgerald says that an economic downturn could have a silver lining in honing services.
“We have to make sure we don’t have redundancies,” Fitzgerald said. “The most important question we ask for ourselves … is, how do we use state and federal funds to incentivize the right things? So, if we want people to be able to move towards competitive, integrated employment, does the way we spend our dollars help move people in that direction?”
Jacobson says that dollar allocations of budgets are their own priority statements, and it’s important they reflect the community’s needs. Crandell notes that the ongoing, collective disruption to daily life is an opportunity for providers to adapt.
“We need to change policies and procedures –- both in our Medicaid Waiver funding and with vocational rehabilitation – around making sure people have access to telework, supported self-employment, [and] entrepreneurial initiatives,” Crandell said. “That’s something I think we’ll see a lot more of post-pandemic.”
Nandi Isaac is a self-advocate, businesswoman and Special Olympics athlete from Macon, GA. In 2007, Isaac founded Scan with Nan, a micro-business and digital preservation service for photographs and documents.
After holding various jobs that didn’t work out, Isaac discovered her passion for photography through a local club called the ShutterBugs Club. She credits the club with enhancing her ability to look at pictures and study them carefully. From the hobby, she was able to find a passion and business.
“Being a businesswoman and being self-employed made me have confidence and made me a better self-advocate in my community,” Isaac said. “And I met really cool people, and I got to save their memories.”
Isaac received support from her family and community, and she now has an operational website and social media accounts, though marketing is a challenge for her. After 13 years in business, Isaac thinks self-employment is an ideal option for people with developmental disabilities. “They can use their given talents, be flexible with time and use supports at home based on their needs.”
The 2019 BLS report on labor force characteristics found that, “a larger share of workers with a disability were self-employed in 2019 than were those with no disability (10 percent versus 5.9 percent).” Isaac’s story is one piece of a larger trend that providers and agencies are beginning to catch onto.
Sulaimon Salam Bamidele is originally from Nigeria, and he’s a trained broadcast radio journalist and DJ. Salam says his experience becoming blind, and the listless days that followed, led him to his passion for journalism. His local school system in Nigeria did not support his education, so he was at home while school aged. A family member told him about a school for the blind which he began attending at the age of 18. Salam now hopes to disseminate useful information to the world and make an impact.
After coming to the U.S. in 2014, Salam was staying with his godmother when her husband suggested he start his own media company. The conversation planted a seed, and the possibilities instantly came to him. Salam is now the owner of SUSABAM GD Communications, Inc. He produces a daily live show on Great Dreams Radio, a subsidiary he calls “GD radio station.”
“Choosing to work for myself, to create my own business, allows me to have unlimited space to be creative and to impact the community and the people at large,” he said.
Getting started, Salam had just one computer, so he couldn’t DJ while transmitting a radio broadcast. Eventually, he was able to save up and buy another. He was able to build resources, develop his network and grow his operation. Salam enjoys his work, and he enjoys being self-employed.
“I want to work with my own time,” Salam said. “I’m a creative person. I don’t like to be limited. I love my space, I cherish my time and I use those to the best of my ability.”
Synergies Work is a Georgia-based, nonprofit organization that provides funding and guidance to entrepreneurs who may not otherwise have the opportunity to start a business. The organization and its founder, Aarti Sahgal, had a prominent hand in the development of Isaac’s and Salam’s businesses.
“This is the biggest minority in our country,” said Sahgal. “And yet, when we talk about diversity, we don’t talk about disability. Our approach to employment is limited. We talk about choices, but we’re not giving that choice when it comes to employment.”
Sahgal sees this as the right time and place for Synergies Work to grow and continue to fill a vital need. Sahgal notes that the access to conventional professional networks is lacking for young people with disabilities, a critical disadvantage in the worlds of business and entrepreneurship.
“Running a business is running on a treadmill,” said Sahgal. “If you stop, you’re going to fall. That’s what I’m interested in. How do you make sure that the businesses that you’re setting up become sustainable?”
At Synergies Work, the goal is to provide unique, personalized service in the form of technology, resources and contacts at no cost to entrepreneurs. Minna Hong is a mixed medium artist, entrepreneur and board member at Synergies Work. Hong says some entrepreneurs are ready to sell a product, and some are nowhere near close. For them, it’s about empowering someone to move further along in their journey and closer to their goal. “They have to do as much if not more,” she said.
Brandon Cantrell is another entrepreneur with a passion for crochet. Cantrell was introduced to Sahgal through the Georgia Advocacy Office earlier this year. Sahgal showed Cantrell that money could be made with his hobby and helped set up his website. Before they met, he was giving his creations away.
Before starting his micro-enterprise business, Crochet by Brandon, Cantrell sought support through multiple agencies and local providers, but GVRA services and DBHDD day programs were unfulfilling. He had loved crochet since his grandmother showed it to him when he was 10 years old, and with a new perspective, he was able to turn it into more.
“It lets me be my own boss,” Cantrell said. “It lets me make my own hours. It gives me a shot at doing something I enjoy and seeing people’s reaction. Having a purpose. It makes me feel like a contributing member of society.”
Cantrell works in his crafts room. He hands out business cards wherever he goes. His sales have seen a downturn, as with many others, but Cantrell and his mother expect business to pick up as the weather gets colder.
Starting from scratch is hard work. Universally, entrepreneurs need support, whether their business is large or small. Many join incubators or get connected with mentors. Nandi Isaac was having the most trouble with her digital presence and marketing before she got connected to Sahgal.
“Becoming a businesswoman has taught me how to use technology and marketing,” said Isaac. “This has improved my life and my ability to be a self-advocate.”
Quigley and Williams appreciate their family, friends and community for their help, and they’re not worried about the future. Both are enjoying their current jobs, but they cherished their experience as business owners and entrepreneurs. Quigley sees self-employment as a viable option for other people with disabilities. “I think other people can help them and support them in the right direction.”
There are many organizations that offer help and resources, including the Advancing Employment Technical Assistance Center at IHDD. The Georgia Micro Enterprise Network (GMEN) is a nonprofit organization that supports and funds underserved entrepreneurs.
In some states, agencies have sought out opportunities to receive support to adopt new solutions. Through ODEP’s Advancing State Policy Integration for Recovery and Employment (ASPIRE) program, 12 states and Washington D.C. will receive assistance aligning their disability employment systems and implementing specific plans through policy and strategy coordination. Georgia is not one of the states in the program, but ODEP is implementing a broader initiative called Visionary Opportunities to Increase Competitive Integrated Employment (VOICE) that could be taken advantage of in the future.
“DBHDD doesn’t do anything alone,” Fitzgerald said. “Our success is dependent on providers, families, academic partners – real experts who continue to advise us, and most importantly, people with disabilities who show us the way and make sure their voices are leading the work.”
Getting support for employment and aligning advocacy is more vital than ever during a pandemic. The recently formed Georgia Developmental Disabilities Network (GDDN) is a body made up of ten Georgia-based organizations focusing on the disability community. The network was established in response to COVID-19, and it provides people with resources to navigate a variety of challenges, including employment. Ultimately, the GDDN is meant to support advocates and align agencies as they deal with unprecedented times. The EFC, as a legislatively mandated body, also connects the leaders of various agencies to prioritize employment.
Recently, GCDD partnered with GreenWorker Cooperatives and graduated three teams through a program designed to expose young entrepreneurs to the worker-owned cooperative business model. In the past, GVRA programs have been criticized for focusing resources on pre-vocational services. Crandell says that this doesn’t track with most people’s lived experience: they just want to work.
“Our system is set up to reinforce providers to continually tell us why the person can’t go to work and needs more funded services prior to that,” Crandell said. “It just doesn’t mirror how Americans go to work. We get fired. We take a job we don’t like. We work early and work often … I think that the struggle is to get the funded system of disability employment to look much more like what naturally happens if you don’t have a label.”
Wells speaks on the past failures of GVRA with thoughtfulness and a positive energy. At the end of the day, he hopes that communicating with individuals in the community and using the current climate to reflect on the agency’s areas of improvement will lead to meaningful change.
“We are opening up our voices, and we’re opening up our ears, our eyes, in order to leverage the resources we have, along with our agency partners, to ensure that we’re moving everybody in the right direction,” said Wells.
State agencies and many organizations have largely decided moving forward that the right direction is towards competitive, integrated employment. Hong says this is vital, but people need to get creative and remember they’re speaking with individuals. Everyone has unique aspirations, and the path forward isn’t always obvious. “We can’t have a system where one size fits all; it doesn’t. It doesn’t really exist,” she said.
Ultimately, efforts to better empower and support people with disabilities on a path to employment must be mutable and human-centered to be effective. A rise in micro-enterprise and entrepreneurship could potentially help solve the underemployment crisis, but it could also make the world a more textured and joyous place. Salam hasn’t been able to professionally DJ since March, but he’s found ways to pour himself into his radio work and create new content. Either way, the business means more to him than profit.
“For me, work is loving my space, loving my time and using those to the best of my ability to make the world a better place,” said Salam. “So, it’s not really about how much I make in terms of dollars, the money. It is not about how much I make, you know, in figures. It’s about how much impact I’m able to make on people and society at large. That gives me more joy than making money for someone else.”
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) 2020. This year marks its 75th observance, as well as the 30th anniversary of the ADA.
by Clay Voytek