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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez

Remarks By
Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez,
American Association of People With Disabilities,
2014 Leadership Gala,
Washington, D.C.,
March 18, 2014

[as prepared for delivery]

Good evening everyone and thank you so much for that warm welcome and for this humbling honor. Thank you so much, Tony, for your years of advocacy and leadership. To have you present me this award — you, who have been such a fearless champion for people with disabilities — makes it all the more special. Thank you, Mark Perriello, Henry Claypool, and everyone associated with AAPD. I accept this award on behalf of all of you who have dedicated your lives to the cause of equal opportunity and self-sufficiency for people with disabilities. And I also accept in on behalf of the giants whose shoulders we stand on, brave people like Paul Miller and Justin Dart who are the trailblazers of this movement.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is one of our nation's proudest civil rights triumphs. When it was signed almost 24 years ago — with bipartisan support, it should be pointed out — it transformed us as a nation. It changed the law, yes; but in so doing it also changed hearts, minds and attitudes. It set a standard and paved the way for millions of Americans to enjoy lives of greater dignity, opportunity, and self-determination. We have accomplished quite a lot together in the last 24 years, and we should be proud of how we have all carried out its spirit. But you and I both know there is a lot more work to be done.

In his State of the Union address two months ago, President Obama laid out a vision based on a very basic and fundamentally American principle — opportunity for all. How far you get should depend on how hard you work. No matter the circumstances of your birth or the zip code you live in... you can have a chance, through hard work and personal responsibility, to live out your highest and best dreams.

And in the State of the Union the president said: "The best measure of opportunity is access to a good job."

Providing that access is exactly what we're doing with the full implementation, six days from now, of DOL's historic rulemakings under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA).

These rules are animated by the belief that we don't have any human capital to waste, that we don't have a single American to spare, that America is strongest when it fields a full team. As many of you know, the Section 503 rule creates a first of its kind nationwide 7% utilization goal for qualified people with disabilities. And the VEVRAA rule creates annual hiring benchmarks for protected veterans. DOL estimates that if every company subject to these rules were to achieve the employment goal, we would add about 594,000 people with disabilities and 205,000 protected veterans — including 84,000 veterans with disabilities — to the workforce. And that's just in the first year.

The outcome is successful because the process was an inclusive one — feedback from hundreds of stakeholders, rigorous employer engagement, dozens of trainings, roundtables and listening sessions. Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania Governor and Secretary of Homeland Security, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last fall: "The Labor Department's rule-making process should be a model for how government can work with stakeholders in crating regulations that are practical and effective."

Several DOL agencies are working together to provide resources and strategies to federal contractors and the systems they work with to make this a success. And already, businesses, federal agencies, and community organizations are stepping up to the plate to show how it has been done and can be done and how they can be of assistance.

Last month, I visited a Walgreens distribution Center in Windsor, Connecticut. At that facility 48% of the workforce has a disability and their lowest paid employees make $14.47 an hour. Their approach is anchored in the philosophy of "same job, same performance," which sets the standard for equality, fairness and opportunity for all coworkers and not any one particular group. And this place was built for success and access — using touchscreens, adjustable work stations, and the use of iconography throughout the facility. Walgreens knows that employing people with disabilities in competitive, quality jobs, is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.

The President also believes the federal government should lead by example as a model employer. That's why I'm so proud of the Administration's work to implement the President's Executive Order to Increase the Federal Employment of Individuals with Disabilities. By the end of FY 2012, people with disabilities represented almost 12% of the workforce, and 16% of new hires. That means we have more people with disabilities both in real terms and by percentage than any time in the past 32 years. I'm proud of DOL's role in this effort.

The availability of good jobs is just one piece of the opportunity agenda. We also must make sure that hard work is rewarded with a fair wage. That's why the president last month signed an Executive Order raising the wage to $10.10 an hour for all new federal service, concession, and construction contractors, including individuals with disabilities. Thank you, AAPD, for your meaningful support on this.

And that same principle — a fair day's pay for a fair day's work — was behind our new regulation to provide minimum wage and overtime protections for home health care workers, who work so hard providing services to seniors and people with disabilities. As with 503/VEVRAA, the rulemaking process was open, inclusive and rigorous. We brought all stakeholders to the table, even when there were differences of opinion. I am very grateful to AAPD for their support of the rule — your help made an important difference.

Empowering people with disabilities is not the job of just one federal agency, of course. It's a cross-cutting mission if ever there was one. You can't separate disability employment from issues involving housing, health care, transportation and more.

That's why HUD's new guidance on the 1999 Supreme Court Olmstead decision was so important — encouraging public housing agencies and other HUD-assisted housing providers to work with state and local governments to increase integrated housing opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

In January, CMS issued a new rule to make sure that Medicaid's home and community-based services provide comprehensive community living benefits for senior citizens and people with disabilities.

Not only is it an all-hands-on-deck situation... all the hands have to be intertwined. We need to work together, imploding the stovepipes and achieving the integration that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

To take two agencies I'm quite familiar with, there is a seamless connection between the disability rights portfolio at the Justice Department and my responsibilities as Secretary of Labor. And over this last year, the Civil Rights Division and the Labor Department have collaborated directly on efforts to improve the lives of people with disabilities. Whether it's DOJ reaching a settlement with Wells Fargo so that people with hearing and speech disabilities can do their personal banking... or DOL's Disability Employment Initiative investing $63 million to increase the workforce system's capacity to provide job training for people with disabilities... it's all about protecting, promoting and expanding opportunity.

To give an example of interagency cooperation, the Labor Department recently cracked down on a Rhode Island disability services provider, revoking all special minimum wage certificates for numerous legal violations. The Department's investigation found that the company was not paying employees for all hours worked, nor had they determined the appropriate wage for each worker as the law requires. The Labor Department referred the matter to DOJ's Civil Rights Division, where we negotiated a first-of-its-kind legal agreement with the city of Providence and the state of Rhode Island to ensure that people receiving employment and support services could do so in integrated community settings rather than segregated programs.

People with disabilities want to work, can work, and deserve to work. They want the same things we all want. They want the feeling of pride and purpose that comes with waking up every morning, performing a job and earning a paycheck at the end of the week. They want the dignity of knowing that they can support themselves and contribute to society. They want the freedom to live in a community of their choice. They want to be a part of the economic mainstream. They want to earn a fair wage. They even want to pay taxes.

We need to find more ways to help people with disabilities find jobs of all kinds and at all levels — working in company distribution centers, to working in HR, to occupying the C-Suite of our businesses.

And to answer the challenge of this moral and economic imperative, again, we need all hands on deck, with a voice for every interested party and a seat at the table for every stakeholder. We only solve tough challenges like this through collaboration and consensus-building.

I was proud to work for and be mentored by Senator Edward Kennedy in the 1990s. He taught me, among many other things, that idealism and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing. And he believed that was never truer than when it came to civil rights generally and disability rights specifically.

So we're going to tackle our upcoming challenges and opportunities with a bipartisan approach, just as it was with the passage of the ADA. We're going to do it with the full buy-in of state and local governments. And we're going to do it with the cooperation and partnership of the business community, so many of whom — like our corporate honorees tonight, Google and Procter & Gamble — have already seen the light and are being smart and aggressive about recruiting and retaining employees with disabilities.

And we're going to do it with the assistance of strong advocacy organizations like AAPD, and all of you in this room on the front lines, providing the energy and the passion that has always propelled this movement forward. Thank you again so much for this honor. I'm so excited to continue working with you.