Section 503 and Accessible Technology: What Federal Contractors Need to Know

In March 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) implemented historic updates to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act—the federal law that requires employers who do business with the federal government to take affirmative action to recruit, retain, and advance qualified individuals with disabilities. Under the revised rules, federal contractors now have clear guidelines and goals for measuring the success of their efforts at meeting these requirements.

The new rules have raised many questions from employers, including how they relate to or affect technology used in the workplace. Below we address some of these issues and list available resources. Be sure to send us any additional questions you have related to technology and the Section 503 rules.

Q: What are the basic highlights of the new Section 503 guidelines?

A: The new rules establish a nationwide 7% workforce "utilization goal"—meaning federal contractors and subcontractors should aim for 7% of their workforce to be people with disabilities. They also require contractors to track the effectiveness of their outreach and recruitment of people with disabilities by collecting data about their job applicants. It's all about accountability and encouraging contractors to quantify and measure their efforts.

Q: Everyone is talking about that 7% utilization goal. Is it a quota?

A: No. In fact, quotas are illegal under Section 503. It's a goal—not a quota or ceiling. Covered employers should think of it as a management tool to assist in measuring the effectiveness of their efforts to employ qualified workers with disabilities.

Q: What about the employees with disabilities we already employ? How does self-identification factor into the new requirements?

A: Not all disabilities are visible, and many businesses already employ people with disabilities who have not identified themselves as such. So, as part of a contractor's affirmative action obligation under Section 503, the revised rule requires contractors to invite applicants to voluntarily self-identify as an individual with a disability during the pre- and post-offer stages of employment The Department of Labor has a Voluntary Self-Identification Form to assist employers in doing this.

It's important to note that contractors may not compel or coerce individuals to self-identify as an individual with a disability. Rather, contractors should focus on creating a workplace culture where people feel comfortable identifying. Key to this is communicating a commitment to a diverse, inclusive workplace—and accessibility, both physically and virtually, is an important part of that.

Q: Why are the new Section 503 rules so important?

A: Federal contractors employ one in every four workers in America, so the new rules have the power to make a big difference. DOL estimates that if every company subject to the rules achieves the 7% employment goal, they will add nearly 600,000 people with disabilities and 200,000 protected veterans to the workforce in the first year.

Q: Does Section 503 apply to all federal contractors and subcontractors?

A: The general Section 503 rules apply to federal contractors and subcontractors holding a government contract worth more than $10,000. In addition, contractors with 50 or more employees and contracts worth $50,000 or more are required to have written affirmative action plans. In addition to federal contractors, many other businesses are paying attention to these rules—including small businesses that hope to one day do business with the government. Those companies are encouraged to put these proactive employment practices in place now so that they are poised for compliance down the road.

Q: Does Section 503 require federal contractors to have accessible online job applications?

A: Yes, unless the contractor offers alternative ways for applicants to apply. DOL's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), which enforces Section 503, puts it this way, "If a contractor routinely offers applicants various methods of applying for jobs and all methods of application are treated equally, then an employer may not need to ensure that its online application system is fully accessible. But if a contractor only uses an online application system to accept applications for employment, it must ensure that potential applicants with disabilities either can use the system or can submit an application in a timely manner through alternative means. This includes providing a means to contact the contractor, other than through the online system, to request any reasonable accommodation needed to provide an applicant with a disability an equal opportunity to apply and be considered for the contractor's jobs." OFCCP also notes that it is considered a best practice for contractors to make their online job application systems both accessible and compatible with assistive technologies.

Q: Are there other parts of Section 503 that relate to accessible technology?

A: While online job and personnel applications are among the main considerations, there are several other provisions related to accessible information and communication technology (ICT). One has to do with placement of an employer's equal opportunity clause. The rule states that contractors must post, in conspicuous places, notices that state the rights of applicants and the contractor's obligation to take affirmative action to employ and advance qualified applicants with disabilities. So if you use an electronic job application process, that statement must be conspicuously placed there and, of course, it needs to be accessible.

This also applies to an employer's notice of reasonable accommodation. OFCCP notes that a best practice for ensuring a diverse, qualified pool of applicants for contractors using online application systems is posting a notice on their human resources webpage or online application portal that notifies job applicants of the contractors' willingness and responsibility to provide reasonable job accommodations to employees with disabilities who need them. So the accessibility of those web pages is key.

Q: Does Section 503 provide any guidance on what standards a contractor should follow to make its ICT accessible?

A: Yes. There is a footnote in the revised rule indicating the accessibility standards OFCCP encourages contractors to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) of the World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative, and the regulations implementing the accessibility requirements for federal agencies prescribed in another section of the Rehabilitation Act, Section 508.

Q: Where can I get additional help on meeting the Section 503 guidelines and goals?

A: OFCCP offers a helpful web page summarizing the new rules that provides many new resources on Section 503. In addition, the OFCCP regional offices are conducting trainings for federal contractors on a range of Section 503-related issues, including self-identification and how best to diversify hiring practices.

(Note: This interview provides informational content only and is not a substitute for professional legal advice. For in-depth guidance on Section 503, contact OFCCP and/or your own legal professional.)

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