PandA Pod: Senator Casey on Economic Self-Sufficiency

October 15, 2020
PandA Pod: Senator Casey on Economic Self-Sufficiency

This is the first podcast episode of a series celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Each part will focus on different aspects of the legal framework of employment and the barriers to economic self-sufficiency. For this first one, we had the pleasure of speaking with U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) who explains some of the legislation Congress is considering to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Transcript

Amanda Lowe:

Welcome everyone to Panda Pod, the National Disability Rights Network podcast, where we focus on all things related to protection and advocacy for people with disabilities and advancing the rights of people with disabilities. I’m Amanda Lowe, senior public policy analyst here at NDRN. This year we’re absolutely thrilled to be releasing three podcasts in celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, or as we call it, NDEAM. Each episode in October will focus on different aspects of the current state of employment for individuals with disabilities through the lens of the Americans with Disabilities Act. So before we get started, some quick background on NDEAM. NDEAM dates back to 1945, when Congress declared the first week of October National Employ The Physically Handicapped Week. Since that time, NDEAM has evolved to include not just people with physical disabilities, but the entire disability community. Now, the emphasis has shifted to focus on competitive employment in the community.

The first episode features Senator Bob Casey from Pennsylvania. We were so excited to discuss some of his important legislative initiatives relating to the employment of people with disabilities. It is our hope that each podcast will interest, educate, and motivate you as you celebrate NDEAM 2020.

Senator Casey, we are beyond thrilled, truly, that you’re able to join us today as we kick off our podcast series celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month or NDEAM. I just want to take a quick second and also mention and give thanks to your great and fantastic staff for making this happen. Thank you to everyone very much. So in thinking about today’s conversation, we thought it’d be really helpful if we could just start on just a slightly personal note and allow our listeners to get to know you a little bit and your connection to disability rights. Throughout your time in the Senate, you have displayed really true leadership and are absolutely considered a champion for the disability community, and I’m wondering if you might be able to tell us just a little bit about why the advancement of disability rights is so important to you?

Senator Casey:

Well, first, Amanda, thanks for this opportunity. It’s great to be part of this celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month. I guess for me, it starts just when I was growing up. It starts with my parents really, and the many lessons they taught me about our own blessings and those who had disadvantages or obstacles to overcome in life, that we had to do everything we could to help them. I just think that was just a fundamental bedrock for me. My father was a public official, so he was obviously more engaged in some of these issues, but I think it starts there. If you believe in the promise of America, you have to believe in, and I think you have to be committed to advancing the rights of people with disabilities. It’s consistent with American values.

It’s not some body of work that’s off to the side. It’s not only consistent with American values, I think it’s in furtherance of those American values that you can advance when you’re advancing the rights of people with disabilities. So I think it’s the fundamental belief that all people should have equal access opportunities that America says that it’s supposed to offer. It says that it will offer. We know, unfortunately from our history, that people with disabilities often have had barriers in their way and obstacles to participating in all aspects of our society. So I’ve had obviously some opportunities myself as a public official to be able to have an impact on these issues. We’re going to keep a focus on this work for as long as the people of Pennsylvania want me to be their Senator.

Amanda Lowe:

Yeah. Thank you for that. It must be really amazing to be able to have something that sounds like a belief that was really cemented for you in childhood, and then be able to really effectuate change and see that belief in action through your work in the Senate.

Senator Casey:

Yeah, just fortunate to have had parents and, I think, a community too. I grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Lackawanna County, Northeastern Pennsylvania. My sense is, and there’s no way to compare this, but my sense is that over time there’s been a recognition in that region about the importance of advancing protections for and rights for people with disabilities. I think my parents reflected that broad consensus.

Amanda Lowe:

That’s really interesting. Thanks for sharing that. So, as we were thinking about how we wanted to celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month or NDEAM this year, the National Disability Rights Network or NDRN, we decided to use a lens of the Americans with Disabilities Act or the ADA and the goal of economic self-sufficiency as the way that we’re thinking about employment for people with disabilities. So more specifically the ADA states, “The nation’s proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equity of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for such individuals.” As I was reading that and reflecting upon it getting ready for today, I was thinking that I’m sure that we can all agree that economic self-sufficiency is important to every single individual. However, the ADA specifically highlights that importance for individuals with disabilities. So Senator Casey, I’m wondering why, in your opinion, why do you think economic self-sufficiency is so critical for individuals with disabilities?

Senator Casey:

Well, I think first it’s part of who we are as human beings. You’ve heard the phrase a lot, ‘the dignity of work,’ and that’s part of the answer, is that I think everyone wants to have that dignity that comes from work. It comes from doing a job, meeting goals and earning a living and being able to support yourself. So that’s a big part of it. Economic self-sufficiency as one of those four goals of the ADA is directly connected, I think, to the broader American dream about being able to support yourself and support your family., If you have one, and it’s part of having a purpose in life. You’re directed towards goals, and you have a focus every day to support yourself and to do a particular job.

Unfortunately, it’s been one of the hardest goals to make progress on or to achieve the full measure of the goal, so we’ve got a lot of work to do. I think that for people with disabilities, we still have barriers to economic self-sufficiency that are substantial, not the least of which is that we place asset limits on many of the programs that support people with disabilities. I think your listeners will know better than I, or at least as well as I do, that to be able to qualify for programs like Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income, SSI, or SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, and many other safety net programs, a person can’t have more than $2,000 in assets. That’s a way to keep people in poverty, not a way to help them achieve economic self-sufficiency. It just doesn’t make sense, but it’s one of the many barriers in their way.

So when we consider the ADA more broadly, it prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities, but it didn’t take away every barrier and many of the current policies make it very difficult for a person with a disability to save for their future, whether it’s save for a home or to save to move to another place, or of course even to save for an education. So we shouldn’t be providing people with supports that limit the amount of money they can save for the future. So we finally had a breakthrough a couple of years ago, five years ago now. It’ll be six in December. December the 14th, to be exact, is when the Senate bill passed on ABLE, the ABLE act, Achieving a Better Life Experience Act. It’s one act that I think is a good start at pulling down some of the policy barriers that have been erected over time, but it’s not,, in and of itself enough.

We’ve got to do more. Here’s another example of policy. The Substantial Gainful Activity, so-called SGA limit for a person with a disability is $1,210 a month. $1,210 a month. If you earn more than that, you’re at risk of losing your disability benefits. So it’s, again, it’s another example of a policy not only preventing us from achieving a goal of economic self-sufficiency, but literally keeping people in poverty because you limit how much they can earn. So we’ve to make it possible for people to earn more than that $1,210 a month, if we’re serious about it, ensuring they can be economically self-sufficient.

Amanda Lowe:

Yeah. Thanks for that answer. That was really helpful and thoughtful. I just wanted to focus in a little bit on ABLE Accounts and the ABLE Act that you just mentioned. It’s such an important piece of legislation. I’m wondering if you could tell our listeners who might not be that familiar with ABLE Accounts, what they are, why in your view they’re important and what your goal was with that piece of legislation?

Senator Casey:

Part of it is it’s obviously connected to the goal of economic self-sufficiency, and I think you could also make an argument it’s also related to that sense of dignity that people have, that you can not only work to do a good job and provide for your family and pay your bills and be part of a thriving society in that way, but you can also, if you choose to, set aside money for savings. One of the provisions in the tax law going back a generation was that parents could set aside money for and were incentivized to set aside money for higher education for their children. That made a lot of sense. So we had the so-called 529 plans around for years. But it was literally the state of the law in the United States of America, that if parents had two daughters, one daughter without a disability that they’re saving for higher education for, another daughter with a disability where they could open up a 529 account, but what if that daughter, for a variety of reasons wasn’t going to pursue higher education or the parents didn’t think she would?

There was no savings vehicle for the daughter with a disability for other needs that you would have, not just education, but those I mentioned before, buying a home or saving for rent for an apartment, or being able to buy assistive technology because of her disability. So all kinds of impediments to saving for other purposes other than higher education. So these ABLE Accounts are a way for people who receive federal disability benefits to save for the future. One of the basic reasons is that $2,000 limit, as I mentioned, so now ABLE Accounts allow a person with a disability to save up to $100,000, not $2000, $100,000. To open an account, you have to have acquired your disability before you reach your 26th birthday. We’re trying to move that number up into the mid-forties, age 46. But the money you save in ABLE Accounts has to be used for disability expenses, but that’s a pretty broad category.

You can save for education, moving expenses as I mentioned, if you’re moving for a job, assistive technologies I referred to earlier, or even an accessible vehicle renovations to make an apartment or a home more accessible, which is often a costly barrier to people with disabilities. So when we talk about saving money, we often talk about saving for retirement or saving for higher ed, but we save for a lot of reasons and limiting how much a person with a disability can save means that we’re taking away their options. So ABLE Accounts make it possible for a person with a disability to plan for their future and thereby to better their lives.

Amanda Lowe:

Thank you for that. I think it’s fair to say that ABLE Accounts have really been a game changer for people with disabilities, and I can’t imagine anything that fits more squarely into the theme of economic self-sufficiency. I’d like to quickly turn to another piece of legislation that you introduced I think that focuses on an enabled economic self-sufficiency, but in a different way, and that is the Disability Employment Incentives Act. I’m wondering if you could just tell us a little bit about that and what you think it would mean for people with disabilities?

Senator Casey:

Well, first the Disability Employment Incentives Act provides businesses with incentives to hire people with disabilities. They are incentives that are not just worthy, and if I can say prove their worth over time, but I think are essential if we’re serious about fulfilling or achieving the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act. So I think that’s critical. In just by way of the background, right now a business can receive up to a $2,400 tax credit if they hire someone with a disability through their state vocational rehabilitation program. But unfortunately businesses, like a lot of programs that are worthy and often advance a particular priority, sometimes there are good programs but folks don’t take advantage of them. In this case, businesses aren’t taking advantage of that tax credit. So one of the ways to do that is to make it more generous.

So I want to more than double that to $5,000 for the first year and continue the tax credit for the second year at $2,500. So take what is now a $2,400 tax credit and make it $5,000 for the first year, and then continue it for a little higher at $2,500 for the second year. So that’s, I think, it’s a better incentive for businesses and it makes a lot of sense to provide that kind of an incentive. Sometimes the incentives obviously are important and at the same time, this legislation would provide tax credits to increase the accessibility of a business, both the physical accessibility and the online accessibility. Obviously, online accessibility has never been more important in the times we’re living. So if we were able to pass this legislation, there’d be an opportunity to get a $30,000 tax credit for improvements to accessibility that a business makes. We wish we didn’t have to provide incentives, but I think it’s important to do so in this context.

Because sometimes a business will say, “Well, I want to do that. I want to provide that accessibility, but it’s costly.” So giving them a substantial tax credit is another way to incentivize those changes. So both incentives to hire and incentives to make changes that will increase accessibility can make a big difference for a small business and can create more opportunities for both hiring and accessibility. So I wanted to leave your listeners with the bill number because sometimes it’s hard to find these bills. The Disability Employment Incentive Act is Senate bill 255. 255.

Amanda Lowe:

Great, thank you for that. I know at NDRN we’re excited about that bill. We’re absolutely supportive of it, and we think it makes all the sense in the world. So thank you for your work on that. Another bill that you’ve introduced that really looks at the incentive idea but from a different way, is the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act. Whenever I talk about this bill, I always say it’s aptly named because it is truly transformational, I think. So I’m wondering if you could just tell us why you felt like this was an important piece of legislation.

Senator Casey:

Thanks. I appreciate you highlighting the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act. I’ll give the bill number, Senate bill 260. 260.

Amanda Lowe:

Thank you.

Senator Casey:

This bill would provide employers who currently pay sub-minimum wage to people with disabilities with funds to help transition their business model from sub-minimum wage to at least minimum wage. Again, one of those goals to achieve and barriers to tear down. Right now, we’re told that about 125,000 people in the country are paid subminimum wage. What we’re trying to do here is to protect these jobs and honor their work while also helping their employers to adapt their business model to be one that is competitive, a different model really, a competitive integrated employment model, as opposed to what they have now. I think it’s a recognition, the bill is a recognition we’ve got to help them do it.

Sometimes government is great at mandating or directing folks to do something, and sometimes we don’t provide enough help to businesses to make that transition. So this bill would provide them with funding to help them change their business model, transition to minimum wage. There’s obviously a whole other fight to raise the minimum wage overall, which we have not won yet. I’ve been in the Senate, I guess, 14 years, and the last time the federal government raised the minimum wage, it was my first year in the Senate. So it tells you how, even on raising the minimum wage nationally, it’s taken us years. Still haven’t done it yet. But as a transition or model from a sub-minimum wage to a minimum wage business, you’d be able to phase out the sub-minimum wage certificates over a six-year period.

So we don’t want to mandate and not give them help. We don’t want to mandate and say, “You have to do it in a one-year timeframe or a short time,” where we give them six years. So I think it’s a responsible way to make sure we can help the businesses so we don’t lose the jobs, and that the work that people with disabilities do is respected. One of the most inspiring things or inspiring opportunities I’ve had is to go to some of these work sites. I haven’t been to 50 of them, but I’ve been to several. It’s remarkable. You walk into it. For example, I remember being in a big warehouse in York County, Pennsylvania right down by the Maryland border. It’s a big county and they’ve got a lot of manufacturing in that county, a very high percent of manufacturing, which is not true of a lot of places in our state.

This warehouse was a very busy place and they were introducing me to some of their workforce, young people that had a disability and were working in that warehouse where you got to keep things moving, on time delivery or movement of cargo or material, or what they’re moving out the door every day. It has to be geared towards schedules and the pace and intensity of it, of a business, and just glowing remarks about the members of the workforce, the employees who had a disability, their work ethic, their on time performance, their dedication, their attitude.

Senator Casey:

I mean, everything you would want in an employee, they’re seeing. So over and over again, there’s evidence over many years now that people with disabilities can do really good work and they can progress in at work. They don’t have to stay in the same job for years and years. Some might have to because of the severity of the disability, but many others can advance. So we’re trying to indicate through this legislation that we can move to a minimum wage model and affirm the dignity of their working and show them the kind of respect that workers should be accorded.

Amanda Lowe:

Thank you for that, and thank you for your leadership on this bill. I know that NDRN and the P&A’s have done an enormous amount of work around sub-minimum wage and ending sub-minimum wage and sheltered workshops. We really view… I think you used the word responsible when you talk about this bill, and I think that this bill is absolutely responsible and it looks at these issues in a very innovative and comprehensive way. So thank you for your work and leadership on that. I wanted to quickly touch on, when we were thinking about this podcast, I really don’t think that we can have a podcast in this time that celebrates National Disability Employment Awareness Month without considering the times we’re in and specifically COVID-19 and the tragic impact that we’ve seen in the lives of individuals with disabilities, more specifically narrowing down the effect that that will have on the employment of people with disabilities, and as it relates to their economic self-sufficiency.

I’m just wondering, have you been hearing things from your constituents about this, so about employment with people disabilities and economic self-sufficiency during COVID-19, things that keep you up at night or things that weigh on your mind that you’d like to share with our listeners?

Senator Casey:

Yeah. Thank you for that question, because there’s a lot, of course, at a time like this, where you have the worst public health crisis in a century and the kind of economic devastation that has flowed in its wake, and we’re really in a jobs crisis at the same time we’re in a public health crisis. That’s evident across the board for everyone. We also know that in the midst of that, many people with disabilities have been working throughout the pandemic and obviously putting themselves at risk, in many instances, because of the work that they do and the job that they have. They’re often providing essential services in all kinds of settings, grocery stores, hospitals, in many of the services that have remained open during the pandemic. So it’s a good example of what we talked about earlier, that the work that people with disabilities engage in is essential and that they do the work reliability and with great pride, and in this case, often under the real threat of danger coming from the virus.

So I worry that for others in the disability community, the return to work will be slower than it is for the rest of the population. So you have some working as essential workers on the front lines every day who are putting themselves at risk. That’s one problem. And then you have others who may be at home like a lot of us have been, working from a distance, or maybe unemployed too, in many instances, but getting them back to work could be a lot slower than the rest of us. We know that after the last economic calamity of the Great Recession about a decade ago, a little more than a decade ago now when it started, but the return to work for people with disabilities never reached the same level as before the recession.

You’ve seen those numbers on the workforce participation rate for people with disabilities. That has always been a lot lower than people who don’t have a disability. So that’s a worry, as well as the worry that someone with a disability would obviously contract the virus and put themselves at risk. So we’ve got a lot of work to do both to provide better protection for those in the workforce, both people with disabilities and people who don’t have disabilities, but we also have to undertake, I think, a more focused effort in creating pathways for people with disabilities to get back to work if they’re not looking now because they’re often hardest to transition. We have, unfortunately, a long history of that workforce participation rate being lower, meaning people with disabilities are employed at lower levels. But this transition back to work, for many, could be especially difficult.

Amanda Lowe:

Absolutely. Thank you for sharing that with us. This segues perfectly into my final question as we close up here, which is where… You’ve talked about the ABLE Accounts and the two pieces of legislation where you’ve really just demonstrated such wonderful leadership and a very thoughtful approach to a way to address these issues around employment for individuals with disabilities. I’m wondering, where do you think we go from here as we try and really fulfill this goal of economic self-sufficiency as laid out in the ADA?

Senator Casey:

Well, as difficult as this time has been and is now and will continue to be for a good while yet, because I’m not an epidemiologist or a public health professional, but my gut tells me and some of the reporting tells me that we’re going to continue to have to wrestle this virus to the ground, and we hope for a vaccine as soon as possible, but it has to be done the right way and it has to be safe and effective, and the distribution of it has to go well, but we’re going to be dealing with the virus for a good while yet, months, if not many months. I think the economic crisis for many will be, unfortunately, a crisis that will last for years, not months. That’s because even when the unemployment rate goes down, as I’m sure it will between now and the end of the year, there’ll still be a group of workers out there who will be hardest to employ or hardest to re-employ.

We’re going to have to undertake brand new approaches. We were going to have to think of ourselves as coming out of the Great Depression, not the Great Recession. So I’ve got a lot of ideas about resuscitating the works progress administration type jobs program. We’re going to have to literally use, I believe, one of several things we’re going to have to do, is to use federal dollars to employ people directly. Now, some in Washington won’t want to hear that. They’ll criticize me for it, but we can’t sit around and hope that incentives and the private sector magically bring folks back to work. One of the best ways to get people back to work is to hire them. That’s, at least, my view. That applies, obviously, to creating opportunities as well for people with disabilities. One of the things we’ve learned in the last six months is that much of the work we do can be undertaken remotely. Most people have become much more familiar with how to work remotely and, to a certain degree, with a lot of success.

I hope and I think we should strive to make sure that that means that many people with disabilities will have a greater chance to work, and that employers will realize that remote work and work that requires accommodations as the ADA enshrined, that any work that requires accommodations can be just as productive as working in a physical office. That workers of all kinds, including workers with disabilities, can contribute substantially to the bottom line of a company by working remotely and having a few accommodations in place. We also still need to ensure that all paths to economic self-sufficiency are clear. We need to eliminate policies like the so-called low SGA limit. We need to incentivize employers to hire people with disabilities. As I said, we talked about the bill that we have. We need to make sure that the resources to accommodate people with disabilities are available in their workplaces.

So even though we’ve come a long way in what I guess is now 32 years since the first National Disability Employment Awareness Month is celebrated, we still have a ways to go. I don’t know how long the road is, but we know that we’re still on the road and we probably can’t see the end of the road. We haven’t met the goal of economic self-sufficiency, one of the four goals of the ADA, so we’ve got some work to do. But I appreciate you and NDRN and the millions of disability advocates and stakeholders around the country who were laboring in the vineyards, to borrow a line from the scriptures. You’re laboring in that vineyard every day to help people with disabilities, and I look forward to continuing to work with you.

Amanda Lowe:

Well, thank you so much. I know as I’ve just listened to you talk about your thoughts for the future, I’m heartened and energized. I just know that you’ve shown such leadership and will continue to do so. On behalf of the NDRN and all the P&As, we are incredibly grateful to you for all your work around disability rights. So thank you so much for joining us today.

Senator Casey:

Amanda, thank you.

Amanda Lowe:

We really appreciate your time.

Senator Casey:

Thank you.

Curt Decker:

Hello. I’m Curt Decker, executive director of NDRN. Thank you for celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month with us. We hope you continue tuning in all month as we talk more about the importance of employment and the dignity of work.