EEO, FMWR drive summer work program for disabled students
August 22, 2011
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- The heat is on in places like Fort Hood, Texas, and Fort Sill, Okla., but the sun is burning extra bright at Fort Drum, where the Equal Employment Opportunity office outshined all other Army EEOs this summer by recruiting six college students with disabilities to work on the installation.
Although health issues forced two students to back out early, four came, from as far away as Missoula, Mont., to participate in what is called the Workforce Recruitment Program, an annual initiative sponsored by the Labor and Defense departments.
Judy Munoz, Equal Employment Opportunity specialist who actively recruited the students, said it's the most Fort Drum has ever employed under the WRP.
"It feels so good to know all the effort was well worth it," she said.
It was not easy. Munoz said most students looking to work during their summer break usually request New York with thoughts of a posh workplace in the city, not an Army post 35 miles south of Canada.
"The biggest challenge is (our) location," she said, which includes the limitations of lodging and public transportation.
What pushed Fort Drum over this hurdle was not just hard work at the EEO office, she noted, but the thoughtful provisions presented by Fort Drum's Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation " free student lodging.
"We had some surplus housing," said Hal Greer, Fort Drum FMWR director. "Whenever we have the opportunity to either take care of our Soldiers returning from a deployment or to supplement the installation's mission, we are going to do that.
"This was a good opportunity to enhance and promote a (worthy) program," he said.
Free lodging was a big selling point, Munoz said, and something that to her knowledge no other installation offers.
Noah Seidel, who will graduate from the University of Washington this fall with a triple major in disabilities studies, political science and comparative history, said free lodging was what ultimately lured him to Fort Drum.
"I'm from the city, so being out here is a different setting," said the Seattle native, who passed on a WRP opportunity in Washington, D.C., to work as an EEO assistant here. "But it's been a good experience."
In addition to being students enrolled in a graduate or post-graduate program, WRP participants must have a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits their ability to perform a major life activity, such as work.
"The Army has a goal of 2 percent for recruiting individuals with disabilities " students or employees," Munoz said. "We're trying to increase our numbers."
She said Fort Drum and most other installations typically fluctuate between 1 and 2 percent. But because of new presidential directives and mandates, Munoz said WRP allocations became more readily available this year and more pressure was exerted on the installations to reach the 2 percent goal.
"And there should be," she said. "We want to make sure we are giving individuals with disabilities a fair opportunity to work here, too.
"A lot of times, people think hiring individuals with disabilities will be very costly and require a lot of coordination," she added. "But that's not true."
Munoz said free assistive technology devices like screen enhancers, lumbar support and voice-activated software are available to all federal agencies through the Computer / Electronics Accommodation Program, or CAP.
At EEO, where roughly 15 requests for "reasonable accommodation" come in each year from the workforce, 99 percent of them are provided by CAP.
"So if someone says it is more expensive to hire an individual with a disability, that is absolutely not true," Munoz said.
WRP students can qualify for any grade from GS-3 to GS-12. According to their grade, they are compensated at the Step One level of pay.
EEO staff has urged directorates that can't fill an open position to consider giving an individual with a disability the opportunity to work for 14 weeks each summer. In some cases, a WRP employee can transition to permanent.
Kimberly Miller, who just graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in forensic anthropology, put New York and four other states on her wish list when she applied.
"It didn't bother me where I went," said the soft-spoken graduate, who gladly shuttles around the other students in the car she drove from Missoula. "And when I heard (about) all the beautiful things that were up here, I was sold."
Miller works at the Directorate of Emergency Services, where she said she felt immediately welcomed.
She said her future goal is to achieve a master's degree in forensics.
"I didn't think I was capable of getting a bachelor's," she said. "I thought it would be way too hard. But my counselor said I was way advanced, and she encouraged me to do it."
Another WRP participant, Norma Rios, has achieved several associate degrees and a bachelor's degree in business administration. A psychiatric nurse for 23 years, Rios is also a certified chef, and she cooks dinner for her fellow students each night in their barracks.
Her job on post is working at the Directorate of Logistics in the Property Book Division.
"I got raving reviews for Norma," Munoz said. "They have an audit coming up, and she helped a lot with preparing paperwork and updating files."
Rios, who is one year away from her MBA at the University of Albany, also helped Munoz in recruiting a business major named Eric La Malfa into the WRP. But due to illness, he left his job at DES early.
The WRP runs each year from June 1 to Sept. 30. Students work any time between those dates.
Munoz, who described her work ethic as jumping into projects with three feet, said she racked up a huge phone bill trying to recruit college students nationwide
"This is not a new program," said Munoz, who arrived at Fort Drum in the 1980s and began working in EEO three years ago. "But we are still trying to get as many people acclimated to it because there's a dual benefit. It's a win-win situation for all of us.
"The folks who came, we have been very pleased with," she added. "I'll tell you that the federal program got its money's worth."