Many disabled veterans -- including some with severe disabilities -- are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and trying to slide back into civilian jobs.
Aging members of the Silent Generation and the baby boom generation are also trying to keep and get jobs in the face of age-related disabilities at a time when a weak economy is still hitting employers hard.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, brought representatives from the private sector to Capitol Hill Thursday to learn about their ideas for making getting and keeping jobs easier for people with adult-onset disabilities.
The HELP hearing was one of a series of hearings the committee has convened in the past year to look at issues that affect the employment of people with disabilities.
In recent months, the employment situation has started to turn around for members of the general population, but "that has not been the case for people with disabilities," Harkin said.
He noted that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities increased to 15.8% in February, from 15.4% a year earlier. Over that same period, the general unemployment rate fell 1 percentage point.
The Social Security Administration estimates about 25% of today's 20-year-olds will become disabled sometime before they retire, Harkin said.
"We cannot afford to lose that amount of our workforce and all of the knowledge, experience and expertise those workers represent," Harkin said.
Recently, the federal government tried to set a good example by requiring federal contractors to employ more people with disabilities.
Harkin started the discussion by suggesting that clearing up common misconceptions could also help.
Many know that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. One common misunderstanding is that the accommodations will be expensive, Harkin said.
Harkin cited employer survey results from Job Accommodation Network. The group found that half of the workplace accommodations reported cost nothing, and that the average cost of an accommodation that costs something is just $500.
Thomas Watjen, the president of Unum Group Corp., Chattanooga, Tenn. (NYSE:UNM), said his company believes in helping employees with potentially disabling conditions while they are still on the job, if possible. One simple strategy is to help an employee with health problems shift to a more appropriate job, Watjen said.
"Government can play an important role by helping to raise awareness with consumers, employers, and others about the risks and consequences of disability," Watjen said.
Private disability insurers can do their part by helping to educate consumers about the need for coverage and also by finding ways to make their products simpler and more affordable, Watjen said.
Christine Walters, a human resources consultant at FiveL Company, Westminster, Md., said policymakers should try to eliminate regulatory barriers to employing people with disabilities and think hard about the unintended consequences that new laws and regulations might cause.
Some new state laws are restricting when employers can make employees use paid leave days for activities such as serving on jury duty or caring for family members, Walters said.
Those rules are well-intended and seem reasonable, but in some cases, the changes affect employers that pay departing employees for unused leave, Walters said.
To reduce the financial burden of paying employees for unused leave, employers may reduce the amount of paid leave they provide, Walters said.
In other cases, Walters said, employers may find that trying to make an accommodation that proves to be unreasonable puts them in a situation in which they cannot easily get out of an unreasonable situation.
Employers need the flexibility to treat different employees differently, Walters added.
"Employers aim to be fair and consistent with employees, but they may ask 'If I do ‘x’ in this case, won’t I have to do the same for everyone?'" Walters said.