Chain of Thought

Anti Discrimination Should Pay Back more than it Costs

Ever have one of those days when you just couldn't please anybody, no matter how good your intentions? Sure, we all have. So let's take a moment to feel sorry for our country's bureaucrats who manage to turn those kinds of days into careers.

OK, that's enough. Let's start thinking how we can overcome the latest mess they've made from their good intentions. This one involves the Labor Department's proposed expansion of the government's affirmative action program for federal contractors. What the DOL wants is for companies that contract or subcontract with the Federal Government to have a workforce made up of at least 7% disabled people. Being the father of two sons with disabilities, part of me wants to cheer such noble intent.

But for the business writer part of me which regularly reports on industrial best practices, this idea doesn't seem to qualify as one of those. Business people who would be directly affected by this mandate have already noted the absurd ways this new set of good intentions conflicts with other good intentions written long ago into the Americans with Disabilities Act—such as forbidding an employer to ask a job candidate if he or she has a disability. How does an employer screen candidates to meet that 7% quota if they're not allowed to determine which candidates qualify as disabled? Not all disabilities are apparent.

My concern is that while this proposed change would only impact government contractors, the bad feelings it engenders among all who might consider employing people with disabilities might cause a chilling effect. It might keep a warehouse manager from doing what Randy Lewis did a few years ago when he learned about the easily-implemented accommodations he could make to take advantage of the deep reservoir of talent available among those job candidates with an unquenchable desire to succeed.

Lewis is senior vice president of distribution and logistics at Walgreens, and when I heard him speak at a Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC) conference five years ago, he told how his company's new $175 million distribution center in Anderson, S.C., uses bar code scanners and specialized operator interfaces to help workers with cognitive disabilities perform inventory management. At the time, 40% of the 264 employees at this Walgreens DC had disabilities. But that wasn't the real story. What everyone reading this blog needs to understand is that this facility was 20% more efficient than the chain's older facilities.

“Technology is not the story here, although the things we did made operations better,” Lewis said. “With these workers we have the lowest turnover and less absenteeism, and there are a lot of other rational arguments you can make. We opened our doors to our top suppliers. They were expecting to learn all about technology. I showed them a workforce that could perform just as well if not better than those without disabilities.”

Employees at this Walgreens facility use touch-screens that display icons and workstations are ergonomically designed to the workers' range of motion. While not all Walgreens' facilities use the same technology, all of them employ people of varying abilities, including those with autism and cerebral palsy.

Meanwhile, contractors just large enough to be subject to the proposed DOL regulation are already complaining about the costs involved to comply. One estimated it would spend $120,000 a year to hire the workers, process data tracking of disabled employment and pay for the legal challenges it expects to be raised as a result of the rule.

Contractors may eventually have to observe the letter of this new law, but spiritual compliance is always more sustainable. To achieve that the DOL would do well to encourage doubters to visit Randy Lewis's little corner of the private sector.

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