The Employment First program is designed to facilitate the inclusion of people with significant disabilities in the workplace, according to the Department of Labor. This approach promotes and encourages community-based, integrated employment as the first and preferred option for youth and adults with significant disabilities.

In this program, people with disabilities are integrated into jobs in typical workplace environments, where most employees are not people with disabilities. Additionally, Employment First participants earn at least minimum wage and get paid by their employer.

“There’s a movement within our field – a philosophy of transitioning youth and adults with developmental disabilities into employment first, instead of other services,” said Ryan Mountain, Vice President of Career Services at Work Opportunities Unlimited. “Work Opportunities Unlimited has always adhered to this philosophy, which is exemplified in our core value: We believe all people can work.

Employment First has become an increasingly popular methodology that developmental disability agencies in select states – including Maryland – are embracing. Participating agencies are steering their service systems toward community-based employment versus facility-based services, per the Employment First mandate.

To further the Employment First mission, The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) created the Employment First State Leadership Mentor Program, to help align policies, regulations and funding to encourage integrated employment for individuals with significant disabilities. ODEP provides information, resources and support for states that strive to adopt the Employment First approach, but may face challenges in implementing the program.

In 1985, Maryland was one of 10 states to receive a RSA- OSERS Grant to begin converting to Supported Employment. In spite of significant effort, there wasn’t much conversion at that time, although many people entered Supported Employment. While providers were on board with Supported Employment, Regulatory and Funding practices blocked the systems change.

In 2008, DDA adopted Employment First, with the assistance and guidance of the State Employment Leadership Network (SELN). Now, at least 23 states are members of the SELN, working to become Employment First states, and regulations are being developed to support this initiative.

Now, the trend in Maryland, Washington, DC and various other states is that agencies are setting up incentives and rate structures to encourage adoption of this Employment First philosophy. Work Opportunities Unlimited is encouraged to see additional states taking great steps to move towards Employment First by updating policies and regulations that encourage work. Work Opportunities Unlimited works with multiple states – such as NH, MA, ME and RI – that have even started to adjust their funding and policies for services to better support the Employment First structure.

“In partnership with Division of Rehabilitation Services and a variety of stakeholders, Work Opportunities Unlimited is in full agreement to make employment the first and most preferred service option,” Mountain continued. “I want to emphasize that employment first doesn’t mean employment only. We’re committed to providing a robust, appropriate and comprehensive array of services to the populations we serve.”

As part of their efforts towards the Employment First approach, Work Opportunities Unlimited encourages and promotes the skills needed for customized employment. The organization provides training and development for their job developers and on-site support team, to further the mission of this program. The organization’s team members also provide benefits counseling to help consumers by managing and protecting their benefits.

“In the cases where individuals are not employed, the Work Opportunities Unlimited team never gives up, striving to secure employment outcomes, identifying any barriers to employment and addressing how we can overcome those barriers. We believe strongly in the power of employment, which is the preferred outcome for our consumers,” Mountain explained.

As part of this push, agencies – including Work Opportunities Unlimited – are required to establish policies and procedures showing how they support Employment First and how they’re working towards the goal of employment for their consumers. Additionally, Work Opportunities Unlimited and other providers must track and submit employment data to the DDA, to help with their tracking and measurement of the program.

“Work Opportunities Unlimited is right in line with the Employment First philosophy,” Mountain added. “What we do – our mission – is what Employment First is promoting. We applaud the efforts to make Employment First the standard for people with disabilities, as we believe it’s the most desirable outcome for these individuals.”