The Government Guy was summing up his four hour PowerPoint presentation on how easy it was for people with disabilities to get a job; “You just need to take advantage of the many work incentives like Ticket-to-Work, PASS Plan, Medicaid Buy-In, IRWEs, Subsidies, Tax Credits, etc., don’t worry – just fill out the applications.”
The audience of mostly Consumers looked confused; “But won’t SSI deduct half my salary over $85/mo?” (yes). Won’t HUD add thirty percent of my salary to my rent?” (yes). “Won’t I lose my food stamps?” (probably). “Of the six million people on SSI, how many have gone back to work?” (one half of one percent). The questions went on — “Aren’t we still in a recession; with an almost ten percent unemployment rate?” (yes). “Then, how is a person on disability who can’t afford to lose their benefits, has few skills, a spotty resume and only enough stamina to work 1-2 days/week going to find a job?”
The good news is that even with these issues, Recipients of SSDI/Medicare (about half of the twelve million persons on disability in the U.S.) are able to return to work because SSDI Recipients worked at least ten years and paid their Social Security. This accomplishment allows them to go back to work and earn up to nine-hundred eighty dollars a month and, still receive their disability checks. They are able to work their way off their benefits.
The bad news is that, SSI/Medicaid Recipients are not able to earn more than eighty-five dollars per month without severe penalties. I asked an SSA Deputy Commissioner; “Why the disparity and could there ever be parity between SSI & SSID?” He told me SSA could not afford a parity policy because SSI Recipients paid so little into Social Security. They couldn’t afford to level the playing field. In order to achieve SSI-SDI parity, the laws would have to change and billions of dollars found elsewhere. I don’t believe this will happen in my lifetime.
So, what is the solution for the almost three hundred thousand persons on SSI in New York State? (About one-third have been diagnosed with “mental disabilities”). The question is; “Are there legal ways to get around the income penalties of SSA, HUD and FDA that could provide significant improvement in the lives of SSI Recipients?”
To compound this problem, SSA can deduct the market value of any unearned income e.g. in-kind support such as room & board, clothing, gifts, etc. that SSI Recipients receive from family and friends. While some work-related expenses may be excluded and some earned income set aside through the PASS Plan, it is limited, negotiable and temporary (SSA.GOV).
The IRS, however, is clear when it comes to reimbursement of work-training expenses; the IRS doesn’t count it as income (IRS publication 525).
Once we were able to navigate a path through the economics of recovery regulatory forest, we could address the issue of how to meet the employer’s work skill requirements. If our Microsoft Office Certified interns were to be successful, they would have to perform the job tasks correctly and on time as defined by their employer, not their instructor. The transition from being person-centered to employer-centered would require skill, self-discipline and maturity.
A recent study of Corporate Human Resource Departments conducted by the Business Council of Fairfield, Connecticut found “Lack of Skills” to be the major barrier to hiring persons with disabilities. Acquiring competitive keyboard and Microsoft Office skills solves this problem. All too often, we have seen non-profits attempting to “guilt” corporations into hiring persons with disabilities. Many NFP’s fail to understand that the corporations’ mandate is to earn a profit. It is not a charity. Hiring employees is a business decision based on matching skills with needs.
Once we addressed the Governments’ and Employers’ requirements, we were free to enjoy listening to our student’s dreams for self-empowerment in the community, for a full and balanced life.
Over the years, our students had helped us visualize what their goal of Self-Empowerment looked like. To them, “recovery” wasn’t an abstract academic term to be tossed around in meetings – it was comprised of specific components whose achievement could be quantified. Once articulated, trade-offs, compromises and choices could be made, plans and supports defined.
In developing our Cross-Disability Employment Program, (CDEP) the challenge was to choose students’ goals that were within the Government’s regulatory pallet of training and work-related expenses; stipends, transportation, meals, work clothing, time management; an alarm clock and wristwatch, computer and programs, driving lessons/license, a car, community college courses, etc. In the focus groups, when a number of women told us they could be healthier if they belonged to a gym – we negotiated a $250 full membership at the local “Y”, a $500 savings!
When functional, the program will offer weekly work adjustment counseling sessions which include stress, money and weight management and smoking cessation.
The Center’s unique status as a NYS ED licensed Business School, Microsoft Certified Office Specialist Training Center, an Employment Network (EN) for SSAs’ Ticket-to-Work Program, a 501 © (3), and one-hundred percent consumer- run agency, enables us to qualify for funding from a variety of sources.
With guidance from our Corporate Advisory Board, our own Board and Westchester’s’ Department of Community Mental Health, we plan to launch the CDEP Program this fall.
The Center is now accepting applications for this model Employment Program Pilot. Currently, there are fifteen slots available. Applicants must be residents of Westchester County, persons with a mental and/or physical disability (SSS/DI) who type at least 25wpm, 95% accuracy, are Microsoft Word Certified and able to work at least one-two days per week. Background checks are required.
The two-hour CDEP Intake Interview includes a Typing Test (Mavis Beacon), a Microsoft Office Word Test, a simulated Office Document Test and personal interview.
Persons interested in this program or our Certified Microsoft Office Training (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Access and Outlook) should call Joanne at914-288-9763.