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Congress Reauthorizes Vital Workforce Programs

This summer has seen Congressional action on several critical issues for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). One long-awaited – and a top legislative priority for The Arc – was last week’s House passage of legislation to reauthorize vital workforce programs, including Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) services under the Rehabilitation Act. The Arc applauds the bipartisan, bicameral leadership that led to this important reauthorization and the Members of Congress who voted in favor of the legislation.

On July 9th, the House of Representatives passed the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA) by a vote of 415 to 6, with 11 abstaining. The House vote followed Senate passage in late June by a vote of 95-3. WIOA now goes to President Obama who is expected to sign the bill soon.

WIOA reauthorizes the Workforce Investment Act for 6 years, from FY 2015 to FY 2020. The bill is a bipartisan, bicameral compromise between the SKILLS Act (H.R. 803), which passed the House in March of 2013, and the Workforce Investment Act of 2013 (S. 1356), which passed the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee in July of 2013. The proposal was develop by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Representative John Kline (R-MN), Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Representative George Miller (D-CA), Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC), Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and Representative Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX).

In general WIOA focuses VR outcomes on competitive, integrated employment and promotes greater emphasis on transition services for youth with disabilities. WIOA also provides increased emphasis on coordination between VR and other agencies including school systems; extends the initial time period for VR supported employment services (from 18 to 24 months); and modifies eligibility determination to promote access to VR by people with the most significant disabilities.

The provisions in WIOA related to VR services and the Rehabilitation Act are generally similar to proposals put forward by the Senate HELP Committee over the last several years, with some modifications and refinements that represent elements from the SKILLS Act. For example:

  • In one version of its discussion drafts, the Senate HELP Committee proposed moving the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) from the Department of Education to the Department of Labor. In contrast, under WIOA, RSA will stay at the Department of Education.
  • In an early version, the SKILLS Act had proposed consolidating many core workforce programs – including VR Supported Employment Services – into a single block-grant type structure, and giving states the option to further consolidate all VR services into that single state structure. The Arc strongly opposed this proposal. In contrast, WIOA does not include this sweeping consolidation; it permits some limited consolidations, but not of VR or Supported Employment Services.

Many details of how WIOA will operate in states will need to be worked out in new regulations and policies developed after passage of the bill. It is likely that the Departments of Labor and Education will work closely with other agencies, including the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Department of Justice, in developing regulatory and policy guidance.

Congress last reauthorized the Workforce Investment Act in 1998. Over the last few years, reauthorization of these workforce programs, including VR services under the Rehabilitation Act, has been a top priority for The Arc. The Arc advocated for many improvements now incorporated under WIOA, consistent with our past and current position statements on Employment, and joined with other national disability groups to express strong support following the announcement of the WIOA compromise this past May.

A one-page summary of WIOA can be found here.

The statement of managers, including a section-by-section summary of the legislation, can be found here.

A summary of key improvements WIOA makes to current workforce development programs can be found here.