Legislative Committee Takes First Step Toward Employment First Policy in Georgia

Atlanta, Sept. 27, 2015 – A first-ever legislative committee formed to improve post-secondary job training and employment options for all Georgians of working age with disabilities has taken a promising first step.

The committee of five lawmakers heard testimony in its first meeting earlier this month from advocates seeking to add Georgia to the list of 32 states that have Employment First policies or laws — including D’Arcy Robb of Employment First Georgia, which is sponsored by the Georgia Advocacy Office and the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities.

Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, initiated the pioneering effort and is committee chairwoman. She supports the goal of creating legislation to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The committee includes Rep. Bill Werkheiser, R-Glennville, whose daughter teaches children with autism, and Rep. Valencia Stovall. D-Lake City, whose son has developmental disabilities.

The goal of advocates is to make Georgia an Employment First state — meaning it would “be the norm for people with disabilities to go to work and build their careers,” Ms. Robb told the committee. “We envision state agencies sharing this goal — sharing data and braiding funds and working together to make employment a top priority for all working-age people with disabilities,” she added.

“Right now, it is not,” Ms. Robb continued. “Right now, people are told they can go to day programs or nursing home facilities before anyone has even considerd whether that person would like to have a career. We want to change that.”

Ms. Robb made a presentation with Dawn Alford, public policy director at the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities. The two explained to the committee that meaningful employment at fair wages not only allows people with disabilities to lead fulfilled lives, it also makes economic sense and a positive contribution to the workforce.

The state of Georgia could save an average of $260 per month for every person with intellectual or developmental disabilities receiving vocational rehabilitation services to help find work, instead of spending time in day centers or meaningless jobs for subminimum wages at so-called sheltered workshops, Ms. Alford said.

Ms. Robb noted that 87 percent of people with disabilities receiving state services in Washington are either working or training to enter the workforce. Washington became the first state to adopt an Employment First policy in 2006.

The committee also heard from Jennifer Briggs, CEO of Briggs & Associates, a Georgia company that has found jobs paying at least minimum wages for more than 3,000 people with disabilities since launching in 1988. She told the stories of several of those thousands, including that of Maurice, a man who is deaf and has visual impairment, as well as cerebral palsy, and had spent time in day programs and was fired from two jobs in food service before he found Ms. Briggs. With her agency’s help discovering his skills and interests, he landed a job at Emory Hospital stocking the carts that carry the tools doctors need to operate. Now in his seventh year there, Maurice has been so successful that he has gone from two to 14 operating rooms.

“What’s so exciting about Employment First,” Ms. Briggs said, “is that it changes one question — it’s never, ‘Can this person work?’ but, ‘What is it going to take?’”

Ellyn Jeager, director of public policy and advocacy for Mental Health America of Georgia, told the committee how “stigma gets in the way” of employers seeing the potential of people with psychiatric disabilities.   

In the end, Ms. Robb said, Employment First in Georgia “(is) about changing the way we look at and the way we treat people with disabilities — so that rather than seeing them as people who need to be taken care of, we’re looking for their talents and interests, and then we help them put those talents and interests to work.”  

The committee plans to meet at least three more times in the coming months, including opportunities to visit sites in Georgia where people with disabilities are working at meaningful jobs.