People@Work: The Tough Job of Getting Disabled Veterans Back to Work

Though the nation's unemployment rate dropped unexpectedly last month to 9%, the jobless rate remains by historic standards stubbornly high. That's especially true among certain populations, including adults without high school diplomas, teenagers and military veterans.

Among veterans, the overall unemployment rate of working-age vets, ages 21 to 64, was nearly 30%, according to data compiled last year by the Census Bureau. However, as with the general population, veterans with disabilities have a much higher unemployment rate -- 41% -- than their counterparts who've returned from conflict without one -- 27%.

More alarming is that the 41% jobless rate may be a conservative estimate. That's especially true for veterans who return with two signature disabilities of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), which frequently go undiagnosed.

According to statistics compiled in a recent study by Cornell University researchers, nearly 20% of recently returning service members from Iraq and Afghanistan screened positive for depression or PTSD, while some 19% of troops received a probable TBI during deployment. Moreover, about 30% have more than one disability, further complicating veterans' diagnoses and treatment.

Few Employers Are Ready

Such disabilities pose a challenge for employers when it comes to recruiting, hiring and accommodating returning vets, says study author Hannah Rudstam of the ILR School at Cornell University. Working in concert with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), an advocacy organization, Rudstam and her team polled more than 1,000 human-resource professionals nationwide to assess their readiness to hire and accommodate disabled vets.

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The study found few were fully prepared to meet the needs of disabled vets in the workplace. "Though employers indicated having good will in this area and did see some benefits in employing veterans with disabilities, they were struggling to translate this good will into solid recruiting, hiring and accommodation practices," Rudstam said in a statement releasing the findings.

Preliminary findings from employer responses showed that 85% were unfamiliar with TBI, often an unseen disability. In an interview, Rudstam says many respondents were familiar with TBI but were largely unfamiliar with how it manifests itself in the workplace or how to accommodate someone with the injury. Further, some employers weren't sure if people with such a disability are even able to work.

Accommodating Disabled Workers Needn't Be Costly

Employers are hamstrung in their efforts to accommodate disabled veterans by a prohibition imposed on them that prevents them from asking whether employees are indeed disabled. "So an employer might not know that they hired a vet with a disability," Rudstam says.

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Another factor that may be contributing to employers' lack of willingness to recruit disabled vets is the belief many have that accommodating disabled workers can be expensive. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), businesses are required to make "reasonable accommodations" to aid disabled workers in performing their jobs should an employee make a disability known.

Cornell's survey showed that employers typically believe such accommodations will run into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. But in actuality, Rudstam says, most cost $500 or less. Further, the law stipulates that employers needn't make accommodations if they impose an "undue hardship" on business operations.

The definition of "reasonable accommodation" is wide-ranging. It includes practical items, such as making facilities accessible to disabled workers, but it also includes other, more job-related actions, such as reassigning employees to positions for which they're qualified but better suited because of their disabilities.

On a Road to Termination?

Most important, for veterans with these kinds of disabilities, employers need to establish a culture of trust and openness, so that veterans can feel comfortable about coming forward with an accommodation request, Rudstam says.

"The best thing that employers can do to welcome back veterans is to look very carefully at what happens when somebody in their organization comes forward with a disability," she says. Employers should examine whether they're doing what's needed to assess and support disabled workers, or are they tacitly putting them on a road to termination?

"Veterans issues are to a large degree disability issues," Rudstam says. If a business doesn't exhibit trust and openness when it comes to being inclusive of disabled workers, they're ability to attract or retain veterans is likely lagging, too.