How to better accommodate workers
By Sue Tiffin
Published Nov. 15, 2018
In Ontario, about 1.8 million people living with disabilities could be filling in gaps in the workforce, if they would be hired.
At the Haliburton Highlands Chamber of Commerce breakfast on Nov. 6. Louie DiPalma, through a Discover Ability presentation, promoted the business case for hiring persons with disabilities and discussed with those in attendance how their organizations can meet the requirements of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act to develop an inclusive workforce.
“People with disabilities represent an untapped talent pool that can help fuel innovative growth and a measured return on investment,” said DiPalma in his presentation to a few dozen local employers who had gathered at the breakfast. He said that research has shown that despite myths suggesting otherwise, hiring people with disabilities has a positive effect on overall business performance, especially as it relates to productivity, retention, attendance, health and safety.
“Can we afford to leave 1.8 million people sitting on the sidelines when it comes to the labour pool,” he asked the crowd.
Despite that, people with disabilities are employed at a significantly lower rate than people without disabilities – 46 per cent compared to 69 per cent, despite Ontario’s businesses needing skilled employees to grow.
DiPalma said it’s essential for employers to inform their employees as soon as possible after hiring that they are accommodating employers.
Accommodations can include communication supports, including changing the font size used in documents, adding smoke alarms that provide a visual alarm as well as an audio alarm and considering the building code as it relates to doors and bathrooms.
“There are times the accommodation is going to cost a little more, there’s no doubt about it,” said DiPalma, but noted the cost of accommodation is relatively inexpensive in the majority of cases.
“Is there a limit to what an employer is expected to do in terms of accommodation?” asked one business owner. “Is there a limit to what you do to accommodate?”
“You try and figure out by talking with the individual, ask the person essentially, what are the needs of that individual and what do you need to do in the workplace to provide a solid accommodation for them,” said DiPalma. “In most instances, you will be able to provide that accommodation. In some instances you will not be able to provide that accommodation. And what it comes down to ... do you have the capacity as a business or as an organization to provide that accommodation, yes or no. It comes down to the hardship or undue hardship.”
DiPalma said in some cases, for example, for government agencies, there’s no such thing as undue hardship. Additionally, the test of undue hardship has changed over the years, such as in the case of ramps leading to businesses. Although in the past, adding a ramp might have been challenged due to hardware and construction costs for example, recently that hasn’t passed the commission.
“If you’re at the point when you’re talking about accommodation with someone, and you really believe you can’t accommodate them because it crosses some threshold you have in your organization, I really suggest that you seek outside counsel to make sure that if you’re tested, you’ve done everything you possibly can on that accommodation piece,” he said. “That threshold of undue hardship keeps changing, that’s why it’s really very important to take a look as an organization at what you can and can’t do, and [determine] what is that threshold. In most cases you’ll be able to come up with an accommodation.”
Offering accommodation support has to remain confidential unless with the consent of the individual requiring the support.
Additionally, accommodation might be required by current employees, not just by new hires.
DiPalma told the story of Fred, whose name he had changed, a senior welder who was the top welder working in his organization. Fred suddenly wasn’t doing very well in his welding position anymore.
DiPalma said that someone in the organization suggested “hauling Fred in,” to deal with the situation through performance management.
“Someone said, instead of getting so tough on Fred, why don’t we just go and ask him what’s going on,” said DiPalma. “Fred explained to them he had hurt his back – not at work – he had pain, it wasn’t going away, and it was affecting the things he could and couldn’t do.”
The organization determined a chair costing less than $300 could be used to offer Fred an accommodation, and as a result he was able to return to his standard of welding.
“The good news is, the company eventually arrived at an accommodation for Fred, they didn’t lose a valued employee, and Fred could continue in his role,” said DiPalma. “The not so good, the company didn’t communicate to Fred that they’re an accommodating employer, and so Fred wasn’t sure how the company would react to that information. It’s extremely important to communicate to staff that you are accommodating.”
“Let’s face it,” he said. “We’re all getting older. We’re going to develop creaks, things that weren’t happening before. If you want to keep your current staff, as they age, you’re going to have to look at accommodation.”
Regarding sick leave, DiPalma said not forgetting people when they were off on sick leave but rather staying with them, determining how to modify duties to get people back to work sooner, provided a win-win for organizations as well as individuals who he said were in most cases much happier to return to work than sit at home. Rearranging scheduling to provide for half-days could help accommodate seniors to return to work if they weren’t quite ready to retire.
He also noted that millennials, the young people entering the workplace now, are often researching businesses online and prefer working for inclusive organizations.
DiPalma answered his question about whether or not the business community can leave folks on the sidelines.
“I would suggest not,” he said. “Because we need the talent.”
DiPalma is the vice president, SME programs at the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and is responsible for developing and implementing initiatives designed to strengthen the business climate in Ontario. For those who missed the presentation, Canadian Business Sense Ability offers a step-by-step guide for employers to support them in hiring and retaining people with disabilities, and DiPalma’s presentation with additional resources can be accessed at www.haliburtonchamber.com.