What Does the ‘State as a Model Employer’ Mean for People with Disabilities?

/ August 17, 2021

By Sen. Becky Massey

First and foremost, I want to thank everyone for your efforts and expertise in helping promote employment for individuals with disabilities in Tennessee, from providers to families to statewide advocacy organizations.  As a former disability service provider for a quarter of a century, I know how important these efforts are to some amazing people.

I watched, during my career, as we moved from providing basic day services with sheltered workshops to the focus on employment training and placements of individuals who yearned for these opportunities in competitive, integrated employment.  These individuals are more than a statistic to me; they are my friends.

Since I was elected to the Tennessee State Senate 10 years ago, I have focused on legislation that addresses disability issues and services.  This year I was able to help pass legislation that designates Tennessee a “State as a Model Employer” (SAME) for individuals with disabilities.  This program ensures that state agencies and departments design and implement best, promising and emerging policies, practices and procedures related to recruitment, hiring, advancement and retention of qualified individuals with disabilities.

People with disabilities are a key factor in our state’s ability to build a strong, inclusive workforce that translates to economic success and quality of life.  Employment means more than a paycheck.  It means truly being part of the community.  Unfortunately, people with disabilities continue to face barriers to equal opportunities to employment.

This effort to make our state a model employer was one of the key recommendations made by the Joint Disability Ad Hoc Committee, which I helped create and lead in 2018 that included both House and Senate members.  The goal of this committee was to look at disability services in our state through the lens of what we did well, where we needed improvements and where there were gaps.  Another goal was to educate the legislators on the committee on these issues.

I first drafted the “State as a Model Employer” legislation in 2019 but, as it was the first year of Gov. Bill Lee’s administration, I wanted to work with them to have their buy-in and also input on the implementation.  Rep. Debra Moody, R-Covington, was my House sponsor.

I was able to get samples of the SAME legislation that had been enacted in other states, and we worked with the Department of Human Resources, which will be the lead state department in implementing and administering the program.  The Department of Human Resources will develop the rules and policies, provide training and technical assistance to the other departments, and track the progress.

We had the legislation ready last year, and the funding was included in the governor’s budget but, as with many other budget items, it got put on hold due to the pandemic.  We had it ready to re-introduce this year in the 112th General Assembly.

Tennessee has been encouraging community service providers to provide employment opportunities, but our state departments have not been walking the talk.  There has been an active internship program for individuals with disabilities, but these internships were not leading to employment.  I felt it was time to lead by example.

I’m pleased that this legislation passed unanimously in every committee and by both chambers of the legislature.  The members saw the importance of this program.  Public Chapter 575 became effective on May 27, 2021.  The Commissioner of Human Resources is very supportive and is moving forward to hire the staff to lead these efforts.  SAME will be housed in the Equal Employment Opportunity division.  I have already met with the EEO staff to brainstorm on the implementation.  It’s exciting to see this program becoming a reality.

In 2016, due to my background as a disability services provider, I was asked to serve on the “Work Matters-A National Task Force on Workforce Development for People with Disabilities.”  This was a national workgroup convened by the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments as part of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy’s State Exchange on Employment and Disability (SEED).  The Task Force was an opportunity for state leaders to explore key issues around the employment of people with disabilities, identify themes, and develop policy options for consideration by states.  “Work Matters” offers state legislators 13 broad policy options as well as real-life examples of innovative programs and policies that states have successfully implemented to build strong, inclusive workforces.

This was my first opportunity to work with some of the staff of SEED.  SEED is a collaborative effort with state intermediary organizations, including National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments, and the Women in Government to help state legislators effectively address policy barriers that may hinder the employment of people with disabilities.  Through these partnerships, the SEED collaborative is dedicated to ensuring that state policymakers have the tools and resources they need to develop and disseminate meaningful policies related to disability-inclusive workforce development.

SEED is a resource for states, I have connected representatives of SEED with the Tennessee Department of Human Resources to offer expertise and assistance with the implementation of our State as a Model Employer effort.  The SEED folks share knowledge on policies both directly and indirectly related to employment, such as transportation, technology, health care, housing, and more.  They develop tools designed to assist state policymakers in crafting and sponsoring effective policies.  They also develop sample policy options that can be customized by the state.   They can provide meaningful data on disability employment and related issues.  And they can provide connections to federal agencies as well as national community, advocacy, and business organizations.

Since then, I have had the opportunity to present some of the results of “Work Matters” and also legislation that we have passed in Tennessee at national legislative conferences.

Through both my experiences as a provider and also through my work on “Work Matters,” I knew that we still had much work in Tennessee to do our best in offering and enabling work opportunities for people with disabilities.  My first action step was to pass legislation setting up the Joint Disability Ad Hoc Committee in 2018.

We had one of the SEED members come present to this committee, and we also held meetings in East and West Tennessee besides the ones held at the Capitol.  As a result of this committee, I passed the following legislation (along with the SAME legislation) with the help of the disability community and my House sponsors:

  • Office of Mobility and Accessible Transportation in the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Learn more here.
  • Supported Decision-Making. Learn more here.
  • Adding businesses owned by people with disabilities to the Governor’s Office of Diversity Business Enterprise. Learn more here

Several other pieces of legislation that I was honored to have helped pass over the past few years include:

  • STEP UP Scholarships for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Learn more about the scholarship
  • ABLE: Achieving a Better Life Experience. Learn more about ABLE
  • Making American Sign Language a foreign language credit for high school students.

Our state has also passed and implemented:

  • Employment First Executive Order, the governor’s order making Tennessee an “Employment First state”
  • Employment & Community First CHOICES Waiver program, which focuses on helping individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities have the opportunity to be employed and have the appropriate supports and services
  • Allowing private employers to give hiring preferences to veterans with service-connected disabilities

All of these are and will continue to advance employment opportunities in Tennessee.  But our work is not finished.  We need to continue to educate legislators.  We need to continue to educate and get buy-in from our state departments on our goals.  We need to continue to look for what works in other states that we can replicate here.  We need to continue to blend and braid resources across state systems.  We need to all be committed to continue to work towards improving employment for Tennesseans with disabilities.  We owe them our very best.

I want to thank Sen. Massey for her many efforts to improve supports and services for people with disabilities in our state. I am particularly thrilled by her work in helping get the legislation passed to make Tennessee a model employer of those with disabilities. One of the primary goals of Tennessee’s Employment First Strategic Plan, first created in 2013, has been that our state would serve as “model employer of people with disabilities” to demonstrate to private businesses that hiring people with disabilities is doable and helps employers meet their business goals. Given that the state of Tennessee is the largest employer in our state, this effort could be huge. Thank you, Sen. Massey! If readers have questions, please email me at Janet.shouse@vumc.org.

Sen. Becky Massey, R-Knoxville, worked for many years as the executive director of the Sertoma Center, a Medicaid waiver provider agency in Knoxville that supports individuals in the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities’ 1915(c) program as well as those in the Employment and Community First CHOICES program. She now uses her experience and expertise to craft legislation to enhance the lives of Tennesseans with disabilities.

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