University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services Case Study

University employees

This is the story of a partnership in Alabama that began over 30 years ago, based on meeting the evolving human resource needs of a state university while simultaneously serving the clients of a state rehabilitation agency. There are two main features to this story:

  1. New and qualified employees are obtained by the University, after being pre-screened, effectively recruited by the Agency, and referred in a coordinated manner through a single point of contact; and,
  2. Using an on-site trained staff member experienced and productive employees are retained in employment when they develop health problems or functional impairments, with technical assistance and resources. In the big picture, this partnership maximizes tax dollars by moving people into economic independence and saves benefit costs by retaining productive employees through accommodation.

Who are the Partners?

The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) employs 17,000 people and is the largest single-site employer in Alabama. The economic impact of UAB on the surrounding community was $2.5 billion for fiscal year 2001. UAB hires about 240 new employees per month, with about 1200 jobs advertised at any time and 3500 applications received each month. The University strives to become the primary employer of choice for employees at all levels by fostering and supporting a diverse work environment, which attracts and retains competent employees. There are 1200 different job titles within the combined University and Hospital operations on its urban campus, ranging from police, to facilities personnel, to researchers, and the full spectrum of health service occupations. UAB is self-insured with a third party administrator for their on-the-job injury program and commercially insured for long term disability.

The Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services provides vocational rehabilitation services to people with disabilities throughout the state. With public funds, they provide services and placement assistance to nearly 40,000 people each year, resulting in the employment of over 7,700 in 2002 alone.
The Agency has developed an employer account system involving approximately 900 employer accounts annually to effectively coordinate the job placement efforts of its staff with the human resource needs of employers throughout Alabama. This system has resulted in better access to good jobs for people with disabilities and improved service to employers in recruiting, screening, placing and accommodating qualified workers with disabilities.

Best Practice Context

In the late 1970's, the Alabama state vocational rehabilitation (VR) agency first approached UAB to develop the University as an employer account for securing employment opportunities for the people with disabilities that it served. VR recognized UAB as a customer in the vocational rehabilitation process, and realized that the needs of the employer must be met as well as the needs of people with disabilities being placed into employment.

Instead of VR staff approaching UAB on a case-by-case basis, the employer account system allowed VR to do this in a coordinated manner, thereby reducing the number of VR staff contacting various HR and supervisory personnel within UAB on behalf of individual applicants. Over time, both VR and UAB designated a staff member to serve as a single point of contact between organizations. Peggy Anderson, State Coordinator of Employer Development for VR, explains that this arrangement allowed the VR staff member to function more as an "insider"; becoming familiar with the jobs, supervisors, and the hiring process at UAB. This system improved the pre-screening and matching of applicants with jobs, made VR more accountable to UAB after placements, and gave VR more timely access to hiring opportunities for its clients.

The relationship has been supported at top management levels through direct involvement of an assistant vice president in Human Resources on the VR agency's governing board. In turn, the Agency has cultivated its role as a trusted partner by providing a growing scope of disability employment services in response to needs that are identified by being on site.

The scope of the current partnership now includes:

  • Providing well-prepared, pre-screened applicants from VR to help meet UAB's recruitment needs.
  • Providing an "account rep" from VR to serve as a liaison to UAB overseeing services and recruiting from VR.
  • Providing VR clients' opportunities to explore jobs and receive training in the workplace prior to hire and in accordance with wage and hour guidelines, without obligation for either party.
    n Providing customized VR services for UAB employees whose job performance is affected by disability, illness, or injury.


  • Providing a jointly funded rehabilitation counselor at UAB in the Office of Human Resource Management to coordinate all of the above services and give VR a permanent, on-site presence.

Unique Best Practices -- Recruitment and Retention

The recruitment component of the partnership provides prescreening and placement of new em-ployees with disabilities for employment at UAB. When clients of VR services are developing job placement plans, UAB is identified as a potential employer for the career goal they are seeking.

Hiring at UAB is decentralized, with over 3,500 applications received each month. Debbie Clemons, the VR account representative for UAB, handles all of the job development for VR candidates. She provides additional screening and specific job development for VR applicants based on her knowledge of UAB's jobs, HR procedures, and the working relationships she has developed with supervisors and HR personnel. After assessing the candidates in relation to UAB's hiring mission and carefully matching their capabilities with the specific requirements of the jobs they are interested in, Richard Helling, the on-site, Rehabilitation Counselor assists the candidates with the application process, including accommodation needs and giving support to the parties involved.

As a result, over 250 VR candidates with a variety of disabilities have been recruited to UAB, and successfully hired into a wide range of jobs. Agreater proportion of VR candidates have been placed at UAB than other candidates who self-report disability but have elected not to receive VR assistance for their job search process. VR candidates placed at UAB obtain higher wages and more benefits, on average, than other VR clients who obtain employment elsewhere.

The newest component of the partnership is geared toward retention. The RAVE program, Retaining a Valued Employee, was launched nearly two years ago as a pilot project proposed by the VR agency to be a jointly funded endeavor housed at the University. VR approached the University with a proposal to create a shared position, with half the salary from each of the partners and reporting to dual supervisors within each organization. From VR's perspective, the RAVE counselor would be able to provide invaluable inside connections for VR to access the extensive array of employment and training opportunities of this very large and high quality employer for people with disabilities. In addition, by assisting the employer with its internal accommodation efforts, the RAVE program could help prevent employees from unnecessarily moving out of employment and eventually onto public disability benefits.

For Susan McWilliams, Vice President for Human Resources at UAB, it was an easy sell for UAB. The benefits to the employer were to reduce unnecessary disability costs and retain the valuable human capital of its experienced employees through the timely provision of service intervention, technical assistance, and accommodation when health issues interfere with ability to perform work. " There are greater risks and more costs to hire a new unknown than to invest in a fully proven and productive employee who needs a reasonable accommodation," explains McWilliams.

RAVE provides an internally coordinated disability management program. Early intervention is provided to employees who are experiencing a health or disability-related problem that is affecting their ability to perform their job, and return-to-work intervention is provided to those who have left employment due to temporary disability and are now able to resume working. "Retention is the key", McWilliams says. "Turnover is out!"

As partners, they have been able to respond rapidly and access technical assistance and resources through the RAVE program to retain most of the referred individuals in employment. Employees who have developed work limitations related to health and disability concerns have been assisted back to productive employment through the application of specialized knowledge and resources of the RAVE counselor along with the resources, training, and other benefits available within the UAB. Those employees who have more significant needs can also become consumers of the VR agency, making them eligible for additional resources and assistance.

Through the RAVE program, UAB is protecting their investment in its employees, satisfying the productivity needs of supervisors, securing employment for their employees, preventing lost work time, and reducing disability insurance costs. Also through the RAVE program, the VR agency has achieved more rapid and higher quality closure for cases served and is now developing other innovative programs in cooperation with the UAB to achieve its employment goals for more people with disabilities in the local community


This win-win partnership for recruitment and retention has enabled both partners to fulfill their missions more effectively and to achieve greater benefits from their investments, while securing the employment of people who have disabilities. The success of this partnership -- what has driven its endurance, evolution and growth -- is a working relationship based on stakeholder needs, trust, mutual benefit, and effective business practices. By helping to meet each other's needs, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services have developed a highly successful partnership, which can be replicated in other VR agencies and employers, large and small, nationwide.

From past participation in welfare-to-work programs, UAB had already learned that many people seeking to become employed require a variety of supports to make a successful transition into the work role and to stay employed. McWilliams believes that employers will need to have the skills of rehabilitation counselors and other human service professionals on-site in order to effectively develop and maintain a competitive and productive work force in today's labor market. From its past partnerships, VR has learned that these can be modular, tailored to address only certain aspects that are feasible in that employer's situation. Anderson explains that partnerships with VR can start as they did with UAB, as a pilot project where needs are identified, and build as they go.

For information regarding this Case Study contact:
Richard Helling
HRM Employee

McMahon, B., Wehman, P., Brooke, V., Habeck, R., Green, H., and Fraser, R. (2004). Business, Disability and Employment: Corporate Models of Success. A Collection of Successful Approaches Reported from 20 Employers. Richmond: Virginia Commonwealth University, Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Workplace Supports and Job Retention.

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