Gov. Newsom is Failing to Insist that California Be a Leader in Disability Employment | Opinion

By Andrew Imparato, Special to the Sacramento Bee
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Gov. Newsom is Failing to Insist that California Be a Leader in Disability Employment | Opinion

California has seen a marked decline in the percentage of state employees with disabilities in recent years. According to the California Department of Human Resources website, the employment rate of disabled workers in the California state government dropped from 14.7% in December of 2017 to 8.8% in June of 2023 — a 40% decrease. Most of that decrease occurred during the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

As a point of comparison, the labor force participation rate for disabled workers in the federal sector was 16.6% in Fiscal Year 2021, according to the Federal Office of Personnel Management’s 2022 Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility report.

Why is the federal government doing so much better than California in hiring, retaining and promoting workers with disabilities? In a word: leadership. 

The federal Office of Personnel Management and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have been making the employment of federal workers with disabilities a priority since the second Bush Administration. President George W. Bush had a disability hiring effort called the New Freedom Initiative that explicitly set goals to increase the number of employees with disabilities in the federal workforce. 

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order calling on the federal government to hire an additional 100,000 disabled workers within five years. President Joe Biden signed an Executive Order promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in the federal sector that includes a section on “Advancing Equity for Employees with Disabilities” which reaffirms Obama’s commitment that “the federal government must become a model for the employment of individuals with disabilities.”

Earlier this month in California, to commemorate National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Newsom issued a statement where he recommitted to “recruiting and retaining a workforce that reflects the diversity of Californians” and noted recent state laws he signed in an effort to improve recruitment, reasonable accommodations and wages for state employees with disabilities. Newsom wrote that “California must lead by employing individuals with disabilities,” and he encouraged employers throughout the state to expand “access, equity and opportunity across the board for all Californians.” 

As the leader of Disability Rights California, and as a lawyer with bipolar disorder who has been working to improve opportunities for people with disabilities for more than 30 years, I commend Newsom for calling attention to this important issue. Although the governor has used strong rhetoric calling on California to be a leader disability employment, when it comes to his own administration, Newsom has failed to be the leader he’s asked private businesses to be. 

In 2021, the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 313 to improve opportunities for people with disabilities in state employment. Since signing AB 313 into law, the governor has not held his own administration accountable for its abysmal performance in hiring and retention. 

As written, AB 313 tasked CalHR with developing a statewide reasonable accommodation policy and engaging with state agencies to review and make recommendations on their disability recruitment strategies. CalHR’s implementation of AB 313 has been slow and weak, and we have not seen the improvements in state employment that the legislature hoped for.

Disability Rights California and the Association of California State Employees with Disabilities have reached out to the governor’s office, CalHR and other leaders in state government. We are convinced that California is moving in the wrong direction because no one in the governor’s office or at CalHR is insisting that California be a leader in disability employment. We won’t do better if we don’t recognize that we have a problem, and it is past time for the governor to acknowledge the problem and demand accountability from the leaders of his administration. 

Millions of disabled people in our state and our allies are ready to work with California to remove barriers and improve opportunities for workers with disabilities in state service. 

Last month, when he issued a statement on the 50th anniversary of the federal Rehabilitation Act, Biden noted that “(d)isabled Americas are still three times less likely to have a job (and) ... often earn less for doing the same work.” In California, the percentage of working age people with disabilities who were employed in 2021 was 39.4%, slightly below the national rate of 40.7%. I believe we are in the bottom half of the country on this key indicator in part because our government doesn’t believe that employment of people with disabilities is important. In Minnesota, which had a employment rate of 50.9% for working age disabled workers in 2021, Governor Tim Walz signed an Executive Order in 2019 calling on the State to increase state employment of individual with disabilities. 

We should not be lagging behind Minnesota, Idaho, Nebraska, Wyoming or any state when it comes to this key equity issue for more than 10 million Californians.

As we mark National Disability Employment Awareness Month, let’s move beyond rhetoric. Let’s get serious about addressing the barriers and discrimination that state employees and job seekers with disabilities face. Newsom can and must do better. 


Andrew Imparato is the executive director of Disability Rights California (DRC), a statewide legal services and policy advocacy organization serving Californians with all types of disabilities. Imparato previously served as the Disability Policy Director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities. He grew up in Los Angeles and lives in Sacramento.

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