State Falling Short in Helping People With Disabilities Find Work

Some New Yorkers with disabilities are missing out on employment opportunities and other benefits because the state Office of Mental Health (OMH) failed to include key features in its web-based advisement system, according to an audit released last Thursday by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

“New Yorkers with disabilities suffer much higher rates of unemployment and poverty than the general public, and the Office of Mental Health hasn’t done enough to fix those problems,” DiNapoli said. “While the state has made some efforts to address these issues, much more can and should be done. I urge OMH to work with other state agencies and make sure New Yorkers with disabilities have every chance possible to find fulfilling employment and the benefits they’re entitled to.”

Person in wheelchair using the computer
According to a recent audit of the state’s OMH web-based advisement system, some New Yorkers with disabilities are missing out on employment opportunities and other benefits.

In 2018, there were about one million working-age adults with disabilities in New York. The employment rate of working-age people with disabilities was about 33 percent compared to about 75 percent for people without disabilities. Census data shows that New Yorkers with disabilities are more than twice as likely to live in poverty.

In June, DiNapoli’s office released an analysis finding that unemployment rates for New Yorkers who face challenges due to a disability increased more quickly and have remained high during the COVID-19 pandemic. Between April 2020 and March 2021, unemployment rates for people with disabilities averaged 16.2 percent, an increase of 8.9 percent over the prior year. The monthly average unemployment rate for all New Yorkers between April 2020 and March 2021 was 11.3 percent.

The state Employment First Commission, established by executive order and comprised of representatives from several state agencies, issued a report in March 2015 with the goal of increasing the employment rate of people with disabilities and decreasing their poverty rate. The report recommended improving online benefits advisement services to help those with disabilities make decisions about going to work.

DiNapoli’s auditors found that OMH, which designed and launched the web-based system, failed to fully address a range of aspects of the commission report’s recommendations to inform people of their benefits and provide critical assistance.

They found OMH’s benefits advisement system, known as the Work Incentives Navigator and Reports (WINR) application, does not contain certain recommended components including an interactive benefits calculator, automated life coaching communications, and information regarding benefits such as nutrition and housing assistance.

The commission report had suggested implementing a specific platform – DB101 – to provide features such as an interactive benefits calculator that would allow individuals with disabilities to better assess how employment will impact their income, health coverage, and other publicly funded benefits. OMH officials said that platform did not meet their minimum internal security requirements, but were unable to provide any documentation to show this, nor could they provide documentation for the rationale they used to support their decision that WINR would be sufficient to meet the report’s recommendation.

WINR also does not provide information on all of the benefits that the commission report recommended, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Social Security Disability Insurance, Supplemental Security Income and housing assistance, because, according to OMH, it does not currently have access to the necessary data sources from other entities and has not attempted to obtain them. Without this additional information, OMH can provide only limited benefits information to customers. 

OMH is also unable to determine with certainty whether an individual is actually eligible for the benefits for which they provide notifications.

DiNapoli’s auditors found that many individuals with disabilities who would likely benefit from WINR services do not have access to the application because WINR is only available to individuals working with an employment services provider. Given that only approximately 40,000 of the estimated one million New Yorkers with disabilities are using WINR, many state residents are missing out on valuable benefits information that could result in greater employment opportunities.

OMH officials acknowledged that they have not assessed whether they are meeting the commission report’s goals for improving employment opportunities and that there are many individuals with disabilities who may not be able to benefit from WINR’s services due to its eligibility requirements.

Auditors also found system customers may not be receiving notifications on important benefits for which they may be eligible, as notifications are delivered only via email and less than half of the 40,000 WINR customers were found to have a valid e-mail address in the application.

DiNapoli recommended OMH, working with other state agencies, should:

  • Formally assess WINR and make improvements, where possible, to address the commission report’s recommendation;
  • Consider implementing key system features recommended in the commission’s report;
  • Develop a network of professional life coaches who are educated in public benefits and work incentives for individuals with disabilities and collaborate with other state agencies as necessary;
  • Expand WINR to include all individuals with disabilities, including those who are not currently working with an employment services provider; and
  • Analyze the effectiveness of WINR notifications and make improvements to the notifications process as applicable.
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