WILKES-BARRE — When state Sen. Lisa Baker met with about 15 people in Wilkes-Barre with disabilities last fall, she promised them she would do something.
And Baker has kept her promise.
On Thursday Baker, R-Lehman Township, said she will once again lead the legislative effort to help young people with disabilities enter the job market.
Already attracting bipartisan support, Baker has reintroduced a bill to require the state to match federal funds to prepare individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities for employment.
“While many young people with disabilities have the desire and ability to work at competitive employment, only two in 10 are currently working,” Baker said.
Her legislation — SB 200 — will allow the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) in the Department of Labor and Industry to hire more job counselors to find part-time and summer jobs and internships for young people with disabilities.
State funds would match federal funds available to Pennsylvania through the OVR under the federal Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Baker said she is seeking $2.5 million in state funding that would draw down $10 million in federal matching funds.
Pam Zotynia, executive director at The Arc of Luzerne County, said her organization is supportive of Baker’s efforts.
“We applaud Sen. Baker for taking the lead on this,” Zotynia said. “If passed and the funding is obtained, it will allow students to be better prepared to enter the workforce.”
When Baker visited with the 15 clients of The Arc’s TRACE program at the Luzerne County Community College Wilkes-Barre Center on Public Square, she said her eyes were “opened wide.” Baker said it was apparent that the clients had one goal in common — to find a job and all they wanted was the opportunity to learn the skills needed.
The clients told Baker that they intended to put pressure on elected officials to find the funding necessary to perpetuate the programs they depend upon.
According to information provided by Baker’s office, federal census data reveals that people with disabilities are more than twice as likely to live below the poverty line and half as likely to join the work force.
Under Baker’s bill, the OVR would be required to collaborate with officials of local education agencies and other public agencies, such as county mental health and intellectual disabilities programs, to include after-school and summer work opportunities in a student’s Individual Educational Plan.
The OVR would also arrange for, monitor, and support the placement of high school students with disabilities in lawful internships, on-the-job training, or full- or part-time work at competitive wages in integrated settings with public- and private-sector employers.
Baker is optimistic the bill will become law. She said 12 Republican senators and 10 Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors. With that bipartisan support, Baker feels Gov. Tom Wolf will sign it into law.
“When I visited with the TRACE students, it was clear that none of those kids wanted to graduate high school to sit home on their couch,” Baker said. “This bill will help us help them find a job that allows them to succeed.”