The United States Senate and House of Representatives have reached a bipartisan agreement on the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) after many months of negotiation. The Act, overdue for reauthorization for more than a decade, modernizes the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) that it will soon replace. While much of the language in the WIOA remains unchanged, several significant revisions will have a direct impact on the disability services provider community.
Prior to this compromise, the Senate version of the bill moved the Rehabilitation Services Administration to the Department of Labor, a concerning situation to providers and state Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Services alike. In the final version, VR was left under the Department of Education, although Centers for Independent Living and the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research will be relocated to the Administration for Community Living of the Department of Health and Human Services.
A key focus of the WIOA is on competitive, integrated employment, a phrase that appears throughout the Act. Similar to language that has been used by the Department of Labor and the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), it emphasizes compensation at or above minimum wage and interaction with non-disabled coworkers as components of successful job placement. Customized Employment and Supported Employment are both categorized and defined as means to achieve this outcome. Supported Employment, itself, has been clarified to be short-term in nature, although the time in service (without reauthorization) has been increased from 18 to 24 months.
Another key provision limits the use of special minimum-wage certificates under section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Under this new section, individuals with disabilities that are aged 24 or younger may not enter into employment at sub-minimum wage unless one of three criteria is met:
All individuals, regardless of age, must have career counseling, self-advocacy training, referrals to employment programs, and make an informed decision prior to employment at sub-minimum wage. This counseling must be repeated every six months for the first year of employment, and annually thereafter.
To guide the Department of Labor (DOL) in modernizing employment programs, the Act directs the Secretary of Labor to form an Advisory Committee on Competitive Integrated Employment. This group will provide recommendations to the DOL on ways to increase competitive outcomes and ways to improve oversight of 14(c).
Finally, the Act shifts major emphasis to Pre-Employment Transition Services for individuals with disabilities. State Vocational Rehabilitation agencies are required to ensure that transitioning students receive job exploration counseling, work-based learning, workplace readiness training, and self-advocacy skills, among other things. Additionally, each local office is required to attend IEP meetings when invited. The Act would also require 15% or more of a state’s VR allotment must be used specifically for transition services.
These changes should come as no surprise to provider agencies, as they are consistent with other related issues like the CMS Home and Community Based Settings rule and the U.S. Department of Justice’s recent Rhode Island Consent Decree. Although not yet law, the leadership of the authorizing committees are devoted to getting the WIOA passed before the August recess. Many of the provisions have been anticipated in Indiana's State Plan, and all are being taken into account as INARF develops recommendations for a new vocational rehabilitation model and funding methodology.