Under Trump, discrimination complaints and firing of disabled federal workers rise

The government fired 2,626 disabled employees in 2017, a 24 percent increase over 2016.
Image: Protesters wait for senators to arrive for a news conference on a health care bill which was part of an effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act in Washington on Sept. 26, 2017.
Protesters wait for senators to arrive for a news conference on a health care bill, which was part of an effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, in Washington on Sept. 26, 2017.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

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By Shelby Hanssen

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration says it's creating jobs and opportunities for people with disabilities across the country, but critics say that's not always true for those working for the federal government.

"There isn't any real leadership on disability issues in the Trump administration," said Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, a national nonprofit advocacy group. "Bad things are happening every day for people with disabilities, and without constant vigilance and enforcement from the top, we will fall back on our progress."

As the nation's largest employer, the federal government is supposed to "model effective employment policies and practices that advance America's ideal of equal opportunity for all," according to the Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy. That includes anti-discrimination enforcement and hiring practices, and, via executive order by President Barack Obama, an explicit goal of adding disabled employees to the federal workforce.

Since President Donald Trump took office, the federal government has continued to add disabled workers to the payroll, according to the figures currently available. In 2017, the government had a net gain of 18,054 employees with disabilities, according to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission federal workforce data.

In October 2018, the Trump White House recognized National Disability Employment Awareness Month and renewed its commitment to "creating an environment of opportunity" for people with disabilities.

But there has also been a 20 percent increase since Jan. 1, 2017, in the number of disability discrimination complaints filed by federal employees of cabinet-level agencies, according to an NBC News analysis of data from the EEOC.

Employers are legally required to provide workplace accessories and modifications for disabled employees as long as they aren't overly expensive or difficult to implement. Failing to make these changes, known as "accommodations," is a form of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Other forms of discrimination include harassment or firing someone because of a disability.

Perhaps the most high-profile allegation of disability discrimination during the Trump administration came after the January 2019 suspension of Tricia Newbold, a White House security specialist who has a rare form of dwarfism. In her complaint, Newbold alleged that her supervisor Carl Kline moved files to a shelf beyond her reach. (Newbold later sought whistleblower protection for revealing information about security clearances in the Trump White House, as first reported by NBC News.)

And while the Trump administration was adding disabled employees, it also stepped up the pace of firing them.

In 2017, the government fired 2,626 full-time employees with disabilities, according to documents from the EEOC obtained by NBC News. That marks a 24 percent increase from 2016.

The EEOC data indicates that workers with disabilities were fired at almost two times the rate of those without disabilities.

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Democratic lawmakers questioned the Trump administration's treatment of disabled federal workers in June, penning a letter to the Office of Personnel Management, the government's chief human resources agency, requesting updated personnel data. The lawmakers, led by Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., expressed concern that federal workers with disabilities were being fired at higher rates than those without disabilities.

"After hearing concerns from her constituents, Senator Duckworth is working to make sure that the federal government is a model employer that treats everyone fairly, including those with targeted disabilities," said Evan Keller, spokesperson for Duckworth.

In an email to NBC News, an OPM spokesperson said the agency is reviewing the letter and will respond "as appropriate."

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Increased hiring by executive order

Employees with disabilities made up 9.2 percent of the government's permanent workforce of more than 2.45 million people as of year-end 2017, according to data from the EEOC. The EEOC collects data from all federal agencies.

"That number should really be higher," said Christine Griffin, former deputy director of OPM and executive director of the Disability Law Center in Boston. "The only way to fix these issues is to have a critical mass of people with disabilities in the workplace. And we're not there yet."

In 2010, Obama signed an executive order directing the federal government to hire 100,000 workers with disabilities over five years. The government exceeded that goal, hiring 109,575 part-time career and full-time career employees with disabilities over that time frame, according to a 2016 report from OPM.

The federal government also has several longstanding initiatives meant to promote the hiring of people with disabilities, such as the Schedule A Hiring Authority, which streamlines the process for qualified applicants with disabilities.

Federal agencies must also designate a "selective placement program coordinator" to promote employment opportunities for people with disabilities and shepherd applicants through the hiring process.

OPM maintains a directory of coordinators across the government on its website, which a spokesperson says is routinely updated.

When NBC News called 50 coordinators from cabinet-level agencies listed in the directory, however, 23 entries were out of date. Most had incorrect or disconnected phone numbers.

"Each agency is responsible for monitoring the activities of its designated [coordinators] and for notifying OPM when a new coordinator is selected," said an OPM spokesperson.

Outdated directory information is just par for the course, said Cheryl Bates-Harris, senior disability advocacy specialist and expert on employment issues at NDRN.

"On the federal government side, there is no consistent coordination for program operations," Bates-Harris said. "It's pretty obvious that on the list of priorities, people with disabilities are on the bottom."

This makes it hard for people with disabilities to connect with agencies.

The most promising avenue to federal employment is to go through Bender Consulting Services, a Pittsburgh-based company hired by the federal government to shepherd job applications from people with disabilities.

Under the contract, agencies can reach out to Bender and create a customized plan for hiring more workers with disabilities. The company presents around 50 applications to the government each month, according to the American Foundation for the Blind.

But placements are kept confidential for security reasons, so the company says it doesn't know how many applicants are hired.

Joyce Bender, founder and CEO of the company, said she hasn't seen much improvement in hiring people with disabilities since she started her company in 1995.

"It's an interesting time to reflect because next year is the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act," she said. "I must say, the attitudinal barriers — then and now — toward people with disabilities are horrific."