The State Worker

California’s count of employees with disabilities suspect

The percentages, at first glance, are headed in the right direction if you think state government should accommodate people with disabilities.

“One of the great success stories has been the state hiring and retaining an increasing number of persons with disabilities,” according to a recent statement to lawmakers by the California Government Operations Agency. “The representation of persons identifying as having disabilities in state civil service has grown from 5.1 percent in 1982 to 11.3 percent in 2014.”

7.2 Percentage of new state hires in 2009 who reported having a disability

3 Percentage of new state hires in 2013 who reported having a disability

Progress? Probably not, says UC Davis statistician Eric Nelson, whose Trends in State Work blog calls the state’s disability statistics a “shell game.”

Using state data, Nelson notes that the percentage of new state hires with a disability fell from 7.2 percent in 2009 to 3 percent in 2013, while the percentage of the entire state workforce with disabilities grew from just under 9 percent to around 11 percent.

While state officials call this a success story, Nelson said, it’s not that clear-cut. He suspects that the figures are reclassifying employees as they encounter ailments of age – failing eyesight, flat feet, diabetes.

“But the percentages create an appearance of an effort to hire more people with disabilities,” Nelson said in a recent telephone interview, “when really what’s happening is that departments are counting eyeglasses.”

The data are certainly squishy. Human Resources Department spokesman Jim Zamora said the state stopped asking job applicants their disability status in 2008 out of privacy and legal concerns. Now it encourages new employees to self-report, so the numbers aren’t as firm.

Still, “we definitely believe we employ more people with disabilities than ever before,” Zamora said.

Nelson also points to the state’s Limited Examination and Appointment Program, or LEAP. The program, instead of using standard exams to evaluate applicants, provisionally hires people with disabilities to see if they can do the work.

It’s a lot of extra work. Departments must develop standards, write evaluations and then decide whether to permanently hire LEAP candidates. A February 2014 report posted by Nelson shows that more than 90 of the state’s 150 or so departments had not made a single LEAP hire since the program started in 1988.

Zamora said many job candidates don’t declare their disabilities because it takes longer to be hired and, for some, it carries a stigma. And those non-LEAP departments? They employ about 3,000 employees total, he said, and about a third of them, such as the State Fair, make a lot of seasonal hires. The remaining 2,000 or so permanent jobs are less than a percent of the state workforce.

Still, the state needs to collect better data and to do a better job analyzing it, Zamora said.

And, Nelson says, stop taking credit for disability employment trends it can’t fully explain.