Sunday, August 21, 2005

New Ideas to Encourage & Reward Customized Employment


Editor's Note:
On July 11, 2005, the Social Security Administration (SSA) issued a notice to the public in the Federal Register soliciting its suggestions for amending regulations pertaining to Section 203 of the Social Security Independence and Program Improvements Act of 1994 (Pub. L. 103-296). This law amended section 1633 of the Social Security Act to establish time limits and other criteria related to a Plan to Achieve Self Support (PASS) as of January 1, 1995.
For those who may be unfamiliar with a PASS, it is a work incentive program developed by SSA to encourage the employment of people with disabilities who are cash beneficiaries. An approved PASS allows beneficiaries with disabilities opportunities to set aside cash income that can assist in securing jobs and obtaining self-sufficiency goals. A PASS takes into account the length of time recipients need to achieve their job goals within a reasonable time period. It also includes other factors the SSA Commissioner determines to be appropriate. The requirement for more individualized time limits voided less flexible time requirements for a PASS in existing regulations.
SSA is now proposing to revise current rules to take into account individual needs and job goals in determining what a reasonable length of time is to achieve an approved employment goal. The proposed revisions will add new language to SSA’s rules describing information that must be contained in a PASS. They will clarify current requirements in PASS regulations and operational procedures.
On August 20, 2005, I sent the following letter to SSA proposing new incentives to enhance the employability of disability beneficiaries who receive cash benefits. Rise President, John Barrett and I have been discussing the ideas proposed in this letter for more than 25 years. With this new opportunity for public comment, we believe the time has come to share them with SSA and the public.
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August 20, 2005
Dear Commissioner Barnhart:
I am writing in response to the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) notice for public comment in regards to its proposed regulatory changes to Section 203 of the Social Security Independence and Program Improvements Act of 1994. My name is Don Lavin and I am Vice-President of Rise, Incorporated, a customized and supported employment provider for adults with significant disabilities and other employability challenges. My organization is located in the State of Minnesota and we provide job placement services to more than 2,500 individuals annually. Rise supports many transition-age youth and adults with significant disabilities who are recipients of public assistance including cash benefits from SSA’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) programs.
The foundation for my systems change proposals rest on a number of operating assumptions. These include the following:
  • Most people with disabilities want to work
  • People with disabilities can obtain jobs in the workforce when customized employment and ongoing support services are available to them
  • Businesses can learn skills and build their capacities to employ people with disabilities in the workplace when training and technical assistance is available to them
  • People with disabilities and their families need to be better educated about work incentives so they fully grasp the clear advantages in choosing to work
  • Long-term dependency on SSA’s disability benefits programs will only be broken when we change specific behavioral and motivational factors of all key stakeholders
  • Government agencies, schools, and human services communities must clearly articulate, expect, and reward an "employment for all" philosophy that includes individuals with significant disabilities
  • There are limited budget resources from all levels of government available to expand job placement outcomes of people with disabilities
  • The best approach to motivating and encouraging key stakeholders is designing a system that is completely voluntary and rewards individual choices
  • It is important to act now to change the future and address growing budget demands on SSA’s disability cash benefits safety net.

With these assumptions in mind, I am proposing a radical change in the way SSA chooses to run its PASS program. Although the existing program does meet some needs, it does not go far enough in encouraging a majority of people with disabilities to go to work. Instead, I believe SSA needs a Super PASS that goes much farther in removing the fundamental barriers people with disabilities experience when they choose to go to work. We need to change our patterns of thinking and move ahead with fresh approaches to attack job barriers grounded in fears, misinformation, ineffective policies, and poor service delivery design.

The cornerstone of my proposal is launching a new strategy to encourage people with disabilities to voluntarily set aside and reinvest their disability cash benefits. I am proposing a conversion of disability cash benefits to a new wage subsidy program with a goal of stimulating customized employment opportunities in the workforce for SSA beneficiaries. Here are my ideas as to how such a proposal might actually work.

A Proposed Super PASS Formula:

  • SSA approves Super PASS regulations that encourage cash beneficiaries to set aside all of their SSI or SSDI cash benefits to be reinvested as a wage subsidy with targeted employers.
  • The wage subsidy set aside is then used to develop and negotiate customized employment positions in the workforce for the beneficiary.
  • SSA develops contractual agreements with certified employment networks that serve as fiscal intermediaries and employment service providers for SSA cash beneficiaries who voluntarily choose the Super PASS option.
  • Approved providers of the Super PASS option must be certified as qualified providers of customized and supported employment services as defined by the U.S. Department of Labor, Office on Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and Department of Education, Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA).
  • An approved employment network provider then supports interested beneficiaries in identifying suitable employment goals and customized job placement plans.
  • The employment network helps each beneficiary by identifying a suitable job in the workforce that is well-matched to his or her unique interests and abilities.
  • The employment network also negotiates the specific conditions and terms of customized employment on behalf of each beneficiary with a host business in the workforce.
  • The employment network negotiates a written description with a host employer that defines all job duties and performance standards for each beneficiary hired.
  • As fiscal intermediary, the employment network negotiates a wage subsidy with each employer equal to the monthly payment level of each beneficiary’s SSI or SSDI cash benefit.
  • The employer agrees to pay the prevailing wage for each negotiated job; however, the business is offered a wage subsidy equal to a participant’s disability cash benefit thereby defraying a significant portion of the wages paid.
  • The business agrees in writing to hire the beneficiary within an 18 month period if his or her job performance is satisfactory and meets measurable standards that are agreed to.
  • The cash benefits transfer is managed by the employment network provider and offered to the host employer for maximum period of 18 months to compensate for extraordinary time, expenses, and energies in learning new skills, customizing employment duties, and making all necessary job accommodations to support the beneficiary.
  • The employment network provider coordinates all necessary training and workplace supports to assist the business in building skills and capacities to meet the long-term job success of beneficiaries.
  • The employment network provider regularly monitors the job performance of each beneficiary and documents all hours worked and wages paid.
  • The beneficiary receives income that is equal to the prevailing competitive wage for a customized job that is negotiated with the host business site.
  • All beneficiary compensation is provided in the form of a business payroll check for a period not to exceed 18-months.
  • As per negotiated agreement, the business site agrees to hire the beneficiary within the prescribed 18-month period unless job performance is determined to be unsatisfactory.
  • A beneficiary may return to SSA disability cash payments if job performance is unsatisfactory anytime before or after the 18-month work period ends.
  • A beneficiary can voluntarily choose to participate in a new Super PASS option; a second customized employment position is then negotiated with a new employer.
  • An SSA beneficiary is limited to using two Super PASS options.

Reasons Why a Super PASS Formula Will Work

It is important for newly implemented SSA regulations to impact the motivational needs of all stakeholders who are core partners in the PASS and job placement process. This is not presently the case with existing work incentive programs.

In accessing a Super PASS, the job placement needs of people with disabilities are addressed more effectively for several good reasons:

  1. A psychology of dependency once associated with receiving a disability cash payment in the mail is now replaced with a new psychology of productivity by earning a payroll check from a community business;
  2. The jitters once associated with going to work and losing disability benefits are now replaced with the confidence of knowing an 18-month window of transition is available to work out adjustment issues and achieve successful competitive employment;
  3. The risks once associated with competing for a job in the marketplace are now replaced with a real possibility of securing a customized job that is negotiated around his or her unique interests and abilities.
  4. The fears once associated with losing a job are now slowly managed over an extended 18-month period offering ample opportunities for making work improvements and participating in career development activities.

Recently, I offered ten good business reasons for customizing employment (http://donlavin.blogspot.com/2005/08/customized-employment-making-business.html). A Super PASS will add direct value in promoting customized jobs for SSA beneficiaries who are traditionally underserved and underrepresented in the workforce. These advantages include the following:

  1. The transfer of disability cash payments into wage subsidy incentives creates a compelling business case in the hiring of people with significant disabilities;
  2. A proposed 18-month transition period offers ample time for employers to learn and build the necessary skills and capacities they need to provide internal supervision and support of their employees with significant disabilities;
  3. The wage subsidies accrued over an 18-month transition period lowers perceived hiring risks by employers and compensates them for extraordinary time investments and training expenses when they hire employees with significant disabilities.
  4. An 18-month transition period increases the likelihood of businesses choosing to hire beneficiaries with limited job skills, work experiences, and histories of job retention challenges.

A Super PASS formula gives employment network providers a new tool for marketing the abilities of SSA beneficiaries with local community businesses. To illustrate:

  1. A Super PASS option gives employment networks a new business investment and bargaining strategy by redirecting the use of existing cash pay outs to employers;
  2. A Super PASS gives business leaders a real opportunity to field-test the hiring of people with significant disabilities in customized employment over an extended period with limited hiring risks;
  3. As fiscal intermediaries, employment network providers become true business investment brokers by assisting employers in addressing their recruitment, hiring, and workforce budget concerns.
  4. As fiscal intermediaries, employment network providers can broker customized employment and budget plans that embrace mutual goals and fundamental agreements between employers and their employees with disabilities.

Finally, a Super PASS is of great potential benefit to SSA because it introduces a new tool to increase the job placement and self-sufficiency goals of its beneficiaries with disabilities. To illustrate:

  1. There is very little risk for SSA since the disability cash payment transfers are already being paid out to existing beneficiaries;
  2. The conversion of disability cash benefits to wage subsidies creates a new marketing incentive in encouraging employers to hire people with disabilities and to field-test emerging customized employment strategies;
  3. Implementation of Super PASS gives SSA an opportunity to compare the impact of a new work incentive program in contrast to others that are presently in operation such as Ticket-to-Work or a conventional PASS.
  4. The concept of Super PASS is simple to understand and fundamentally sound in its overall business approach.

Of course, implementing new strategies such as a Super PASS will require new operating guidelines and rules to protect beneficiaries and prevent the misuse of funds by employment network providers or employers. With that said, these issues are operational details that SSA can work out effectively through feedback, consensus building, and negotiation with key stakeholders. Securing guidance on new policy regulations is essential to insure efficient and effective uses of all available funding streams to obtain improved self-sufficiency outcomes for existing and future SSA beneficiaries.

For these reasons, it might be prudent for SSA to consider a pilot demonstration that would examine the feasibility of such a plan so it can effectively measure the impact of such principles on beneficiary outcomes. For example, a pilot demonstration program that examines the viability of a Super PASS could offer insight on: (1) specific diversionary practices that guide transition-age youth with disabilities in obtaining customized and competitive employment; and (2) use of effective conversion practices that guide existing SSA beneficiaries into productive competitive employment in the workforce.

Thank you for this opportunity to share my ideas with SSA on new PASS work incentive strategies. It is my sincere hope that these suggestions from the field are helpful to improving future policy directions and job placement outcomes of people with disabilities. If I can be of any further help in clarifying my conceptual design, I can be reached at 763-783-2815 or by e-mail at mailto:dlavin@rise.org

Best wishes,

Don Lavin
Vice President

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