New EEOC Regulation Aims to Ramp Up Federal Hiring of Individuals with Disabilities

On January 3, 2017, the EEOC issued a rule establishing new guidelines to encourage federal employers to hire individuals with disabilities. Specifically, federal agencies should take steps to reach a target goal of disability representation among their workforce and provide their disabled employees with necessary services. The rule, codified at 29 CFR § 1614.203, will take effect on January 3, 2018.

What Does the New Rule Do?

The new guidance amends regulations related to Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits federal agencies from engaging in employment discrimination against people with disabilities.  Current EEOC rules require federal agencies to be “model employers” with regards to the employment of “qualified individuals with disabilities.”  29 C.F.R. § 1614.203 (2013).  In addition to their duty to refrain from disability discrimination, federal agencies must now take proactive steps to hire and retain employees with disabilities.         

Drawing upon public comments, management directives, and Obama-era Executive Orders, the new rules mandate that federal agencies should aim for a 12 percent representation rate for people with disabilities and 2 percent for those with “targeted disabilities.” Targeted disabilities are those identified as severe disabilities that historically have been used to exclude otherwise qualified individuals from employment, including deafness, blindness, missing extremities, paralysis, and mental illness. To reach these representation rates, federal agencies must seek qualified job applicants with disabilities and must maintain a written procedure for employees to request reasonable accommodations.

Provision of Personal Assistance Services

Additionally, the new rules require federal agencies to provide “personal assistance services” to employees whose targeted disabilities prevent them from traveling to and from work or participating in work-related travel. Such services are intended to assist employees with daily living activities, such as eating, using the restroom, and changing clothing, but do not include medical care.

Implementation

Because the EEOC’s affirmative action guidelines focus on hiring an increasing proportion of individuals with disabilities, these goals may be impacted by President Trump’s federal hiring freeze.  As long as the freeze in effect, federal agencies will be unable to hire any new employees and will have no means to improve the representation of individuals with disabilities within their ranks.  The EEOC is currently planning to provide training to agencies ahead of the 2018 effective date for the new rules, but federal employment policy will ultimately determine when this effort will have a real impact on individuals with disabilities and the agencies who stand to benefit from their contributions to the federal workforce.