|By Steve Suroviec, President and CEO
The Pennsylvania Employment First Oversight Commission (EFOC) met last week for its first quarterly meeting of 2023. I was honored to serve as the commission’s Chair for the past two years. The February 8 meeting was the last meeting I would chair before turning the reins over to Josie Badger, another Pittsburgher who was elected unanimously by the commission to take over. Also elected that day were Vice Chair Julia Barol and Secretary Dale Verchick.
The EFOC was created when Act 36 of 2018 was passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Tom Wolf. The purpose of Act 36 is to promote “Employment First,” which means making competitive-integrated employment the first consideration and preferred outcome of publicly-funded programs, such as public education, state and federally-funded home and community-based services, and other public employment and training programs. “Employment First” is a movement that started to take root over 10 years ago, and it was a response to decades of public programs that had led to people with disabilities being pipelined directly from special education to segregated, subminimum-wage-paying “sheltered workshops.”
Employment First laws in Pennsylvania and other states have attempted to change the trajectory so that there are higher expectations in our elementary, middle, and high schools for students with a disability. They also push Medicaid-funded home and community-based “waiver” programs to use their public resources to support people with disabilities in regular jobs, making the kind of wages everyone else makes and interacting with more coworkers without disabilities.
During my tenure as Chair, the EFOC issued two reports – one in October 2021 and another in October 2022. The role of the EFOC is to establish and monitor measurable goals and objectives and make public policy recommendations to the General Assembly and governor to promote competitive-integrated employment and increase the number of people with disabilities who hold competitive-integrated jobs.
The jury is out when it comes to how much progress has been made since Act 36 was passed. Some state agencies have made efforts to change programs and policies so fewer people with disabilities end up in segregated, subminimum wage workshops, but other state programs continue to show little to no progress. Take the PA Office of Long-Term Living (OLTL), for example. It funds a program called “Community HealthChoices,” which provides long-term supports and services to people with physical disabilities. Employment-related services are funded services, yet according to OLTL data provided to the EFOC in 2022, out of 58,689 working-age Community HealthChoices participants, only 433 have a competitive-integrated job (<1%), and only 1,074 (<2%) have an employment goal in their service plan. How can this be if employment is the “first consideration and preferred outcome” of Community HealthChoices? (Who are the managed care organizations getting Community HealthChoices funding in southwestern PA? UPMC, PA Health and Wellness, and AmeriHealth Caritas.)
The EFOC can only shine a light on the data and make public policy recommendations. It’s up to our new governor, and our newly-seated legislature to really make “Employment First” a priority and insist that our publicly-funded programs do a better job. To that end, I want to thank State Representative Dan Miller for inviting me and the EFOC’s new Chair, Josie Badger, to speak before a legislative panel he’s convening at his upcoming Disability and Mental Health Summit. We look forward to testifying before the panel to shine a light on the data and highlight the EFOC’s public policy recommendations.
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