People with disabilities want to build line, not just ride

Will people with disabilities be shut out of jobs during construction of the Central Corridor light rail project? That’s an issue being raised by Kaposia Inc., a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities find employment. State and regional officials, in response, say there isn’t anything they can do to set employment goals until state lawmakers act on the issue.

“People don’t want to just ride the light rail. They want to help build it,” said Carol Rydell, service development coordinator for Kaposia. More than two dozen people rallied in downtown St. Paul on May 20 to protest the Central Corridor project’s lack of employment opportunity for people with disabilities. Advocates contend that state human rights officials have not even started the work necessary to set a legally defensible employment goal for the light rail project or for other upcoming projects.

Kaposia organized the rally with help from The Arc of Minnesota, Advocating Change Together, the Council on Deaf, Blind and DeafBlind Minnesotans, the Equal Access Coalition and the Minnesota DCC.

The rally was the same day as a “Construction Workforce Diversity and Inclusion Mixer” organized by Metropolitan Council, cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), Minnesota Department of Human Rights, Hennepin and Ramsey counties and other organizations. Contractors were encouraged to come and meet people looking for work and to publicize upcoming projects, work and apprenticeship opportunities.

Rydell and others noted the fliers for the event made no mention of hiring people with disabilities. The organization also got little notice of the event so in protest, Kaposia chose not to have a table at the mixer. The event was attended by more than 200 people.

Kaposia has worked on employment issues for persons with disabilities for almost 50 years. The organization was very active in recent efforts to improve City of St. Paul contracting and vendor outreach efforts for persons with disabilities. The organization was able to push through a 10 percent goal for people with disabilities on affirmative action plans submitted by contractors. Individuals with significant disabilities were able to find work on projects including construction of the Rondo Community Outreach Library at Dale and University

Now Kaposia wants an employment goal for people with disabilities on the workforce for publicly funded projects including Central Corridor. But that won’t happen unless state rules change and state lawmakers intervene. With a lack of employment goals for people with disabilities, it is harder for people to get hired, advocates said.

“The Minnesota Department of Human Rights needs to do its job,” said Rydell.

“How about putting people with disabilities to work?” said Kaposia Executive Director Jon Alexander. “That works well for everybody.”Alexander and Rydell noted that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is at 13 percent, almost double the rate for the rest of the population.

Mike Truxler is disabled and has more than 10 years’ experience in construction. But he has been unemployed since 2006. He and others at the rally said more needs to be done to help people with disabilities find good jobs. Several speakers talked about the importance of employment as a means of promoting self-worth as well as providing economic independence.

Nikki Villavicencio, an intern at the Gillette Children’s Hospital, is disabled by arthrogryposis. She works and thinks others should have the same opportunity. “Everyone should have a job,” she said. “Work is important to me because it tells me I am worth something,” said Kari Sheldon, a college student who spoke at the rally. “People with disabilities do need jobs. We need jobs immediately.”

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights construction employment goal for women is 6 percent statewide, and 11 percent for minorities in the seven-county metropolitan area. There are no state-mandated goals for hiring of persons with disabilities because there is no requirement to do so in state rules, said Jeff Holman of the Department of Human Rights.

Changing the rules means seeking action from the Minnesota Legislature. But if there were goals for people with disabilities, Holman said that could raise difficult issues. One is that if a prospective employer set a goal to hire a set number of persons with disabilities, which would require pre-employment medical inquiries. Those kinds of inquiries aren’t legal.

“We want to encourage people to get hired, period, said Wanda Kirkpatrick, director of equal opportunity for Metropolitan Council. But the council cannot set its own employment goals. Those have to come from the state. Instead, the council works to get information out about hiring and to work with contractors. Hosting the May 20 mixer is just one of many steps taken to try to connect people with jobs, Kirkpatrick said. n


Jane McClure is assistant editor of Access Press.