Employment program to be scrutinized

Gov. Tim Walz has ordered a review of a troubled state hiring program for people with disabilities. The review, which […]

Gov. Tim Walz has ordered a review of a troubled state hiring program for people with disabilities. The review, which is to be completed by year’s end, comes after media reports critical of the program. Allegations have been made of mismanagement, lack of training and poor leadership. 

The state agency that oversees hiring said it will launch an independent evaluation to find strategies to improve administration of the Connect 700 program, a state program that gives people with disabilities early preference during the hiring process for hundreds of jobs across state government. Once hailed as innovative, the hiring program has fallen short of expectations and has come under criticism for being rolled out inconsistently across state agencies. 

The review will include gathering input from current and past participants in the Connect 700 program, as well as consulting with state agencies and disability advocacy groups, said Kristin Batson, human resources systems director at the Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) agency, in a written statement. “We are committed to better meeting the needs of employees with disabilities,” she said. 

Connect 700 was a program started in 2016, when Mark Dayton was governor. Before Dayton took office, a number of state agencies had stopped tracking the hiring and recruitment of people with disabilities. Agencies had affirmative action plans, but they lacked specific disability employment goals. As a result, the rate of workers with disabilities in state government plunged from 10 percent in 1999 to less than 4 percent in 2013. 

It has hoped that Connect 700 would reverse that trend, to level the playing field for people with a wide range of disabilities who often struggle to compete for coveted state jobs. Applicants with developmental disabilities or neurological disorders, such as autism, may have more difficulty processing questions in face-to-face job interviews, and they may appear nervous or reluctant to make eye contact, thus reducing their chances when competing against other job candidates, disability advocates maintain. 

“The program was groundbreaking in that it recognized that we live in an ‘ableist’ society,” said Kristin Burgess, who is director of accessibility resources at Metropolitan State University. She has a disability from a spinal cord injury. “There is often a perception that a person who does not process information as quickly is less qualified, even though that person may be incredibly well qualified.” 

In recent interviews, nearly a dozen former Connect 700 participants with disabilities described how agencies failed to provide adequate support, cutting short their hopes for a career in state government. In some cases, these workers said, requests for basic accommodations in the workplace — such as access to a job coach or the use of assistive technology — were ignored or denied, making it impossible for them to succeed. Several hiring managers said they were never told about the program’s requirements, such as regular check-ins with participants. Burgess said the program was seen as a burden, and that it lacked training and information. 

Source: Minneapolis Star Tribune

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