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By Pam Shlemon

In an instance of good intentions gone awry, an effort to hire people because of the skills they possess rather than their college degrees has turned into a concern that certified rehabilitation counselors may not be able to divulge their credentials to clients. That’s not helpful to anyone, especially the clients they serve: people with disabilities.

In January, Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey signed an executive order requiring the state government to use skill-based hiring practices. That means the state would not ask its job applicants whether they held a college degree, or other advanced certifications, unless it was absolutely necessary for the job, potentially enabling people with relevant experience but not a degree to be hired.

As the leader of a national organization that advocates for people with disabilities, I see the value of skills-based hiring, which would open doors for qualified, motivated workers who may lack a particular degree.

The problem came soon after, with how the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission interpreted that order. Commissioner Toni Wolf suggested limitations on how the state’s certified rehabilitation counselors, or CRCs, use and disclose their certification to their clients.

That is a problem. Reducing the emphasis on credentials while hiring is one thing, but trying to erase their importance while performing the job is misguided. CRCs get their credentials from the organization I lead, the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification. The certification is the national gold standard in the field of rehabilitation counseling for people with disabilities, and it leads to proven better outcomes. Indeed, the Massachusetts Division of Professional Licensure asks for proof of the certification to become a licensed rehabilitation counselor.

Certification for CRCs serves as a quality guarantee, an assurance for a person with a disability that their counselor has the skills, knowledge, and ethical standards to help clients live as fully and independently as possible. A CRC is required by their certification to focus on what the client can and wants to do in their life, and is trained to work toward those goals. The nationally accredited certification is the result of rigorous training, comes with a 50-page code of ethics, and is not lightly granted.

In this field, as in many professions, credentials are important. You trust a certified public accountant, not a bookkeeper, with accounting skills. You bare your soul to a licensed mental-health professional, not someone familiar with some aspects of mental health. When you need surgery, you rely on board-certified surgeons and anesthesiologists, not someone knowledgeable in human anatomy but unlicensed to practice. This is true as well with rehabilitation counseling.

Favoring just skills at the expense of credentials is risky in the field of rehabilitation counseling. The training, the degree, and, most importantly, the certification verify that they know what they are doing. A person hiring a rehabilitation counselor would want to be sure they could do the work, avoid unintentional harm, give accurate information, and not take shortcuts, like referring clients to mediocre employment opportunities misaligned to their skillset or failing to account for their functional limitations. The certification held by a CRC provides that assurance.

A CRC, for example, is committed to helping a person with disabilities find and keep a high-quality job that suits them and bolsters their independence, not just any job. We work with a vulnerable population. The certification is acknowledgement of that and serves as a promise that CRCs never forget their obligations to this population.

Being barred from divulging their credentials hurts the CRCs, too. It’s demoralizing and frustrating to be unable to speak about their qualifications. It’s an erasure of their professional identities.

I have no quarrel with Gov. Healey’s move toward skills-based hiring, which is beneficial to many people in many fields. We at CRCC favor legislation that increases access to certification, including the Tomorrow’s Workforce Coalition, which advocates for workforce-development policies that open up funding for certifications, including the CRC.

Commissioner Wolf’s track record is long and admirable. This is certainly a case of a move made with good intentions and unintended consequences. I hope the commissioner sees that and steps back from this move.


Pam Shlemon is executive director of the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC), the national organization that sets the national standard for certification and advocates both for the profession and individuals with disabilities.



Questions of Accommodation

By Trevor Brice, Esq.


As we move out of the COVID-19 era, employees are struggling more frequently with drug and alcohol addiction. As such, it is important for employers to know that alcoholism and drug addiction can qualify as disabilities under federal and Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws.

If an employee suffers from alcoholism or drug addiction, the employer could be exposed to liability for discriminating against that employee or failing to grant the employee a reasonable accommodation for the employee’s alcoholism or drug addiction. However, alcoholism and drug addiction do not qualify as disabilities in all circumstances.


Alcoholism and Drug Addiction as Disabilities

Despite the possibility that alcoholism or drug addiction can qualify as legal disabilities, employers do not have to tolerate employees who are drunk or under the influence on the job. As such, employees cannot excuse being under the influence at work by claiming that they suffer from alcoholism or drug addiction.

Furthermore, employees cannot request to be drunk or under the influence at work as a reasonable accommodation for alcoholism or drug addiction. In these circumstances, the employee would not be a ‘qualified’ alcoholic or drug addict that would meet the definition of disability under the ADA. Consequently, the ADA does not cover those who are currently engaging in use of illegal drugs or alcohol.

In addition, an employee who is an alcoholic or drug addict can lose their qualification as a disabled individual due to low performance, as the ADA specifically provides that an employer can hold a drug-addicted or alcoholic employee to the same standards and behaviors as other employees. However, a high-performing alcoholic or drug-addicted employee can be qualified under the ADA if the employee is no longer engaging in illegal drug use or alcohol.


Reasonable Accommodations Under the ADA

Reasonable accommodations for employees who are recovering alcoholics or drug addicts can include seeking time off for inpatient treatment; time off to undergo outpatient treatment, including methadone clinics; or being excused from work events that involve alcohol. However, qualified alcoholics and drug addicts do not necessarily need to be granted accommodation every time they ask.

For example, if a drug-addicted employee requests a reasonable accommodation in response to discipline for unacceptable performance or conduct, the employer does not have to grant that accommodation if the low performance is attributable to the current use of drugs.

However, if the low performance is due to alcohol, and the employee specifically notes this in her accommodation request, it is the employer’s responsibility to engage in an interactive dialogue to determine whether or not the requested accommodation is reasonable. Absent undue hardship, the employee may have to grant the employee’s reasonable-accommodation request, such as a modified work schedule to enter treatment or to attend an ongoing self-help program.

However, another wrinkle presents itself when the reasonable accommodation is in response to a court order for an alcohol- or drug-related offense. As a recent court case (Mueck v. La Grange Acquisitions, L.P.) notes, employers do not have to grant a requested accommodation of leave in relation to a court-order DUI for a recovering alcoholic.

Further, the employer can offer the employee a “firm choice” or “last-chance agreement,” in which the employee can be terminated for future poor performance or misconduct resulting from drug or alcohol addiction. The agreement will normally state that the employee’s continued employment is conditioned on the employee’s agreement to receive substance-abuse treatment and refrain from further use of alcohol or drugs.



When an employer is determining whether an accommodation for disabled employees is reasonable, it is a difficult task in and of itself. When the question becomes whether the employee is actually disabled due to current or past alcohol or illegal drug use, the question for the employer becomes even harder. If an employee is seeking a questionable accommodation request for alcoholism or drug addiction, it is prudent to seek out representation from employment counsel.


Trevor Brice is an attorney who specializes in labor and employment law matters at the Royal Law Firm LLP, a woman-owned, women-managed corporate law firm that is certified as a women’s business enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council.


Putting Experience to Work

Colleen Holmes says client employment, inclusion, and empowerment have been challenged by the pandemic.

Colleen Holmes says client employment, inclusion, and empowerment have been challenged by the pandemic.

Colleen Holmes calls it a ‘full-circle moment.’

That’s how she chose to describe her decision to assume the role of president and CEO of Viability, the Springfield-based nonprofit with a broad mission that boils to providing services — and creating opportunities — for those with disabilities. Those opportunities come in a number of forms, and we’ll get to that shortly.

But first, that ‘full circle’ reference. Holmes used it to note that she spent a full decade at one of the legacy agencies, in this case Human Resources Unlimited (HRU), that became Viability in 2107 (Community Enterprises was the other) before moving on to a new role leading as president and CEO of the 18 Degrees agency.

So she’s back where she was. Well, sort of, but not really. Viability is a much bigger agency than HRU was — it boasts $36 million in annual revenues, 420 employees, and 37 sites in four states — and so much has changed in the interim, much it before COVID-19. And the pandemic has simply added another layer — or several layers, when you get right down to it — of challenge and intrigue.

“Coronavirus has in no way taken away from the need for the services we provide. And in many ways, it has made it even more important to provide those services; that has been job one for me, and for all of us here.”

“Coronavirus has in no way taken away from the need for the services we provide,” Holmes explained. “And in many ways, it has made it even more important to provide those services; that has been job one for me, and for all of us here.”

In that respect, much hasn’t changed, and she has, indeed, come full circle, especially when it comes to agency’s mission, which boils down to enriching the lives of the people served by the agency and continuously reinforcing the belief that every individual, no matter their ability, can be a valuable contributor to the community — and the workforce.

It carries out this mission through a number of programs and services, including:

• Clubhouses, which provide members with a supportive environment to increase their vocational, educational, and social skills;

• Partnering with more than 600 employers to provide members with a variety of supported employment opportunities;

• Community living programs that provide that provide care management, direct care, and referral services to individuals with disabilities, enabling them to live in the community with dignity;

• Day supports and various recreational programs that provide individuals with a broad range of community activities; and

• Transitional services that provide members with upfront job-readiness skills, placement assistance, and ongoing supports.

The common denominator in each of these areas, said Holmes, is dedicated staff that not only make the programs happen, but make the individual goal set by and for each member attainable.

“This work doesn’t happen without our staff — and I don’t mean that simply from the standpoint of hands being on deck,” she said. “A lot of the way in which progress is made with individuals is through trusted relationships that are built that give people a safe space to try things, to grow, to progress, to fail and come back and try again another day. Those trusted relationships are pivotal, and our staff’s ability to offer that is everything.”

But COVID has certainly impacted many of these initiatives, said Holmes, adding that the agency has collectively overcome a number of challenges to keep employment, inclusion, access, and empowerment for people with disabilities in the forefront, despite the pandemic. Moving forward, lessons learned from the pandemic will be applied to the future of these programs and services and how they are provided.

“What worries me is that some of these people are losing ground that they worked so hard to gain — people who were working, people who were gaining life skills, people who were gaining in their levels of independence, people who were ready for their next step in employment. There are a number of folks who have lost ground.”

And there will be some important ground to be made up, she said, adding that, in some cases, COVID stunted the progress being made by some members who were forced inside and into a form of isolation that is not part of this agency’s MO.

“What worries me is that some of these people are losing ground that they worked so hard to gain — people who were working, people who were gaining life skills, people who were gaining in their levels of independence, people who were ready for their next step in employment,” she noted. “There are a number of folks who have lost ground.”

Overall, however, many members, and the agency as a whole, have been able to carry on and move forward through this pandemic, she went on, adding that many members work in essential positions, and they take pride in being essential.

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest talked at length with Holmes about her new assignment, but especially about how the pandemic has only magnified the need for the various services this agency provides, and how Viability has gone about responding to this changed landscape.


Work in Progress

Holmes said she certainly wasn’t looking for a new challenge when Don Kozera, the long-time CEO of HRU, her former boss (she served the agency as special projects coordinator), and, most recently, the interim president and CEO of Viability following the unexpected passing of Dick Venn (who stepped into that role after having the same titles at Community Enterprises), asked to talk with her about possibly becoming a candidate for this role.

Suffice it to say he did a good sales job, although it wasn’t necessarily a quick or easy sell.

“He said he thought I would be a good fit for this position and asked if I might consider it,” Holmes recalled. “And I said, ‘I don’t know … I’ll go talk to people; I’m always happy to do that.’”

She did talk to people, and came away intrigued by the possibilities.

“What I saw in this was an opportunity to sort of test my skills and challenge myself in a larger organization; this one is probably two and half times the size of the organization I was leading,” she explained. “Also, and this is probably most compelling, coming to Viability was an opportunity to advance work that matters to me in a different and larger arena.

“Our focus is on employment, training, empowerment, and inclusion with people who have disabilities and other challenges and disadvantages,” she went on, “and that speaks very much to me, in the combination of capacity building and social-justice change.”

Fast-forwarding a little, she did enter what became a nationwide search for a permanent president and CEO, and prevailed through a series of interviews conducted virtually, which she described as a new and different experience — at least as the interviewee.

She arrived in November to a full plate of challenges, including continuation of the daunting process of combining HRU and Community Enterprises into the larger entity that exists today, work that was in some ways slowed, and complicated, by both the passing of Venn and then the arrival of COVID.

“As I came on board, the organization that I am coming to know was ready to be on the other side of that transition,” she told BusinessWest. “And it would have been on the other side sooner had it not been interrupted by the grief and loss of Dick Venn, and had it not been for a pandemic.”

Elaborating, she said that what has been delayed has been the process of “breaking down the silos” within the organization. “You have a much larger organization in every way you can name — there’s more staff, many more programs and services, and in more geographic areas — and one that was continuing to grow, not just as a result of the merger but because it’s part of the mission, vision, and value of the organization. It’s about silos, systems work, and some of the basic functional things, like IT.”

A big part of the process of leading the organization to that proverbial ‘other side’ is to do a lot of “listening, watching, and learning,” she noted.

“You don’t walk into an organization like this one and think you know what you need to know,” she explained. “And I can say I’ve walked into an organization of people who are very welcoming, very helpful, who have lots to share, and who are deeply committed to the mission. Our people show up because they believe in the work that they’re doing and the people they’re working with.”


The Job at Hand

Supporting and nurturing this staff is just one of the many priorities for Holmes moving forward — and is, in itself, a challenge.

“One of my larger concerns, and it’s one that’s certainly shared, is the fact that human-service salaries are woefully inadequate to the jobs people do,” she explained. “Joining in advocacy efforts at the state level for eliminating the disparity in pay between community-based providers and state employees who do substantially the same work is important. But it’s also important for us as an organization to prioritize our staff to the extent that the limitations of our largely state-funded dollars allow us to do. Continuing services and supporting our staff are real priorities.”

Another priority, of course, will be transitioning, if that’s the right word, to a post-COVID world. Many staff members have been working remotely, she noted, and there are questions moving forward about how and where work will be carried out and even how much office space the agency may actually need in the short and long term.

And there are many factors to consider in making those decisions, she said.

“It comes down to how we most effectively support the services and the staff members that are delivering the services,” she explained. “There might be a natural tendency to say, ‘OK, there are certain positions that can be carried out remotely, so let’s just put all of them out and save that space.’ But it’s more complicated than that; human-services work is very collaborative. It’s teamwork, but more deeply than that, there is an environment of support that’s hard to come by when you’re not in contact with people, when people don’t see you walk through the hall and see you being a little more tired, a little more stressed than normal. In the kind of work we do, we need to pay attention to that.”

Meanwhile, there are those lessons learned and the new ways of doing things that came about out of necessity — and ingenuity.

“There was a brief period when staff needed to switch to providing services remotely, and … by golly, they did it,” Holmes told BusinessWest. “You get creative, and I’m sure we all have; you learn how to do some things differently, and you discover that the paradigm of how services are provided is turned on its head.

“That’s a new skill set we’ll carry forward, but it by no means replaces in-person services,” she went on, adding that, moving forward, the agency will look toward using the new skills and new technology, including virtual reality, to carry out its mission.

She noted that Viability is using virtual reality to acclimate and train clients and members for job placements. “We started during the pandemic, and we’re very much in the testing and piloting stage,” she explained, adding that early results are very positive. “If you have folks who have autism or others who for various reasons are highly sensitive to changes in environment or to noises, or just to new experiences … to be able to take a work environment and load it into a virtual-reality system so that people can safely explore and navigate that workspace without actually being there is very advantageous. It can lead to much smoother transitions.”

As for the employment programs, the ones that put thousands of individuals in jobs across this region and beyond, COVID prompted some businesses to close and many others to slow down, said Holmes, adding that obvious question marks remain about when and to what extent business, and jobs, will pick up again.

“It is a concern as to how long the economic rebound takes, and if there continues to be a shortage of positions,” she said. “As is so often the case, people who are marginalized are pushed out first, so that is a concern. But there are a number of employers we partner with who, through experience, will tell you the value of working with us, and that, when it comes to our members, their attendance is superior, and the quality of their work is at least on par.”


Past Is Prologue

Holmes has talked with many such employers over the years, so she understands those sentiments. She has, as she said at the top, come full circle when it comes to her career in human services.

But in most all respects, she is not coming back to where she was years ago. The landscape has changed in myriad ways and, thanks to COVID, it continues to change, each month and almost each week.

This is a different test, a sterner test, one she fully embraces. As she said, she’s excited about the opportunities — for herself, but especially for those benefiting from Viability’s programs and services.


George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]



By Cheryl Fasano

Workplaces that welcome the talents of all people, including people with disabilities, are a critical component in efforts to build an inclusive community and a strong economy. In my role as president and CEO of MHA, I see the impact that doing meaningful work can have on those we serve. Our participants include people with developmental or intellectual disabilities, people dealing with the life-changing effects of a stroke, people struggling with their mental wellness, and those with other disabilities.

This topic is timely because October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This annual observance educates the public about disability employment issues and celebrates the many and varied contributions of America’s workers with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy leads the observance nationally, but its true spirit grows from local communities through the individual determination of people who overcome barriers and do meaningful work. It also grows from the vision of employers who provide access and reasonable accommodations so persons with disabilities can contribute to their organizations and our economy as part of the workforce.

As a local, nonprofit provider of residential and support services, MHA works with people who are impacted by mental illness, developmental disabilities, substance use, and homelessness. For those whose disabilities are not so severe and medically challenged, MHA does its part to ensure that participants who want to work are ready to work. Consider two examples.

Erik, who suffered brain injury as a child, works at the CVS store in Ludlow. He has a job coach who guides him, but Erik does the work himself — as he has consistently and reliably more than 20 years. Work is part of his identity, and he will tell you he is proud to have a job. Erik resides at an MHA residential home. Our staff ensures he is well rested, eats a healthy breakfast, and is dressed in his work clothes and ready for his shift at CVS.

After Allen sustained a serious injury, he was prescribed opioid pain killers. He became addicted, and when couldn’t get more pills, as too often happens, he resorted to heroin. An overdose left him with acquired brain injury, but with support from MHA, he is making steady progress. In time, he may be able to ‘graduate’ from residential care and live independently. That is the goal. One step toward that goal is a job. Allen is just a few short weeks away from starting to work again, something he has not done in recent years. He is ready to work.

MHA also has participants who work for nonprofits as volunteers, serve meals at Lorraine’s Soup Kitchen, and clean at East Longmeadow Public Library and the Zoo in Forest Park. While they are not paid, they do meaningful work. They also make social connections, learn transferable skills, and contribute to organizations that gain from having committed, loyal, pleasant, and productive workers.

MHA encourages local businesses to consider offering employment opportunities to those we serve. Our program participants are ready to work — are you ready to hire? If your organization can provide an opportunity for someone who is ready to work, contact Kimberley Lee, MHA’s vice president of Resource Development and Branding, at (413) 233-5343 or [email protected].

Cheryl Fasano is president and CEO of MHA.