Apprenticeships: Apprentices with Disabilities

Worker serviceman operating industrial water purification filtration equipment in boiler room or treatment plant

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) regulations were last updated in 2017 with the implementation of some revisions delayed until 2019. Some alterations apply to apprenticeship programs and update  EEO regulations that already protect individuals from discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin and sex to include disability, age (40 or older), sexual orientation and genetic information.

For example, the EEO regulations ensure apprenticeship recruitment reaches people with disabilities. Sponsors cannot discriminate against those with disabilities and must provide reasonable accommodations. This applies to all aspects of employment, including outreach, application, interview process and employment.

The apprenticeship EEO regulations also require measurement of the rate of inclusion of individuals with disabilities. Employers must allow apprentices and applicants to self-identify whether they have a disability, but information on the specific disability need not be requested. In 2019, the goal was set that qualified people with disabilities make up at least 7% of a sponsor’s apprentices. This is the benchmark to measure whether barriers for people with disabilities exist in apprenticeship programs and whether diverse and accessible outreach occurs. If the goal is not met, apprenticeship programs are expected to review the program and determine what changes could be made to make it more inclusive.

In the years since these updates took effect, the United States has faced the challenge of a global pandemic. Even so, states have taken legislative steps to meet the requirements outlined in the EEO regulations as well as update disability employment laws. Outlined below are examples of bills enacted since the final updates to EEO went into effect in January 2019.

In August 2021 Illinois enacted House Bill 1838. This amends the Illinois Human Rights Act to include protection against discrimination involving  individual because of their association with a person with a disability. This is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provision that protects applicants and employees from discrimination based on their relationship with an individual with a disability, regardless of whether the employee or applicant has a disability.

Maine passed several bills to conform Maine’s apprenticeship programs and terminology to EEO regulations. Senate Proposal 37, enacted in June 2021, requires apprenticeship programs to request demographic data including race, sex, ethnicity and disability status from apprentices. Also in June 2021, Maine’s governor signed into law House Proposal 987, which discontinues the use of the word “handicapped” and replaces instances of the term with “persons with disabilities.” The words used to portray people with disabilities are important. Remaining respectful, accurate and objective matters. Maine’s move to replace the word “handicapped” is a step toward more neutral language. The ADA National Network provides information about language preferences in their guidelines on language around people with disabilities.

In Washington, employers can apply for certificates to pay less than minimum wage to learners, student workers, apprentices, and previously, to individuals with a disability. In April 2021, Washington enacted Senate Bill 5284 which prohibits subminimum wage certificates based on an employee’s disability.  Subminimum wage certificates can still be obtained for apprentices. If a person with a disability also is an apprentice they may be paid subminimum wage. In this case, the employer must be in an approved program with a valid and approved apprenticeship agreement. The subminimum wage range cannot be less than 75% of the minimum wage rate in the state.

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