In the aftermath of COVID, Westchester County has seen a historically low unemployment rate — 3.4% at the beginning of 2023. But for job candidates with a disability or those who were previously incarcerated, the unemployment rate skews much higher.
In New York, there are one million working-age adults with a disability, yet only 33% are employed. Formerly incarcerated individuals also have a much higher-than-average unemployment rate of 27%, according to a State of the Workforce Report conducted by the New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals (NYAETP).
“With theoretically record low unemployment rates, employers have realized there is a great untapped labor pool of job candidates from these populations,” explains Thom Kleiner, executive director of the Westchester-Putnam Workforce Development Board. Kleiner, along with Director of Economic Development Bridget Gibbons and several nonprofits and employers, recently held several Diverse Abilities Job Fairs to help secure jobs for those with disabilities. Hundreds of job candidates had a chance to meet with employers such as Amazon, New York Power Authority, MHA Westchester, Liberty Lines, Northwell Health, MTA, and NYS Thruway Authority. Several found jobs.
“We are in a very unique period of time in the labor market with a talent shortage. There is much greater openness from employers to hiring people with disabilities,” agrees Dr. Marsha Gordon, president and CEO of the Business Council of Westchester (BCW).
Through a BCW initiative called Westchester Innovation Network (WIN), Andre Peart was able to expand his business helping the formerly incarcerated find employment and other services such as housing and banking. “Getting out of prison with $40 and a list of services and names of a few local employers simply wasn’t efficient,” notes Peart.
Motivated by his own struggles with entering the job market after his incarceration, Peart created ConConnect, now Untapped Solutions, a professional networking and software platform that is similar to LinkedIn. Thus far, his app has placed over 2,000 employees in jobs. He has built partnerships with many Westchester-based organizations and employers such as Central Park Recovery, 914United, and Greyston Bakery. Research by the Prison Policy Initiative shows that individuals who have a job following release have reduced recidivism rates and are less likely to commit crimes when they have stable full-time employment.
“We are in a very unique period of time in the labor market with a talent shortage. There is much greater openness from employers to hiring people with disabilities.”
—Dr. Marsha Gordon, President and CEO, Business Council of Westchester
Supporting Job Seekers With Disabilities
For people with disabilities, Adult Career and Continuing Ed Services-Vocational Rehabilitation (ACCES-VR) and VISIONS are two popular organizations with a local presence that those with disabilities can rely on for finding jobs. ACCES-VR placed more than 3,000 people in Westchester and Rockland County into jobs last year. “Our role is to assist people to obtain and maintain employment. We help every disability group except those who have vision loss. We work with a wide spectrum of disabilities and at all different skill levels. Our clients bring longevity to the table and a good work ethic. They are loyal and hard-working,” explains Michele Green, district coordinator for workforce development and business relations at ACCES-VR.
ACCES-VR has placed those with disabilities in jobs that run across every industry, from technical writers to truck drivers. “We had a bilateral deaf client who became a software engineer for Microsoft — the sky is the limit based on the person’s interests and resume,” says Green.
For those with vision loss, VISIONS is the sole provider of vision rehabilitation programs and services in Westchester and the Lower Hudson Valley, where more than 21,000 residents self-report as blind or unable to read print even when wearing glasses. Started almost 100 years ago, VISIONS helps those with severe vision loss and the legally blind gain skills they need to get employed at no cost.
VISIONS conducts a free summer pre-college program at Manhattanville College for high school students or recent graduates who want to attend college or vocational/tech school. Students have the opportunity to take classes and learn adaptive technology skills plus self-advocacy skills.
In addition, VISIONS has a vocational residential rehab center in Rockland that draws Westchester residents for anywhere from five to 15 weeks. Students take classes to enter careers such as HVAC technicians, vet assistants, teacher aides, and web design. These students, once employed, earn $15–$25 per hour. Like ACCES-VR, VISIONS has found jobs for individuals across various industries.
Once those with disabilities have been hired, companies see many benefits. Businesses that have a diversified workforce, including people with disabilities, report a 90% increase in retention of valued employees and a 72% increase in employee productivity, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Plus it helps their bottom line. An Accenture study showed that companies who hire those with disabilities were four times more likely to outperform their competitors in shareholder return. “These companies are truly doing well by doing good,” sums up Gibbons.