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National Telecommuting Institute (NTI): Providing Home-Based Employment Opportunities For People with Disabilities

More individuals with disabilities are becoming dissatisfied (not to mention desperately poor) living on government disability benefits, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). It is rarely the case that people choose to forgo work and live on what can be as little as $603 a month (the 2006 Federal amount for SSI). Usually, they have been forced out of the workforce and onto disability benefits because of an injury or illness; or they were born with a disabling condition and have never had the opportunity to work. Frequently, people with severe disabilities need more flexibility and accommodations that the tradition workplace routinely provides.

One increasingly popular solution has been to embrace “microenterprise” or home-based businesses. People with disabilities are not necessarily more or less entrepreneurial than the non-disabled population. Sometimes it is sheer desperation that forces them to become their own boss. In some cases, this has resulted in amazing success, freedom and a degree of independence that the entrepreneurs had never thought possible. In other cases, it has led to failure and even more dire economic circumstances than before embarking on the ill-conceived enterprise.

This article describes another solution for people wanting/needing to work from their homes. The following is conversation with M.J. Willard, the Executive Director of the National Telecommuting Institute (NTI). Dr. Willard explains that NTI offers entry into the virtual workforce for people with disabilities who strongly prefer or require home-based work. The telework jobs developed by NTI could serve as a springboard to a home-based business, or the first steps on a career path in the newly emerging world of virtual work.

Question 1: What is NTI?

Answer: National Telecommuting Institute (NTI) is a distance training/job-matching non-profit organization which develops telework jobs for Americans with disabilities. NTI staff bring together employers who have agreed to hire remote workers, advanced telecommunications technology, and clients of state vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies to enable individuals with disabilities to train for and work online in environments that are more easily accessible to them.

NTI prepares qualified individuals with disabilities primarily for work as customer service representatives taking orders, resolving billing issues, providing product or service information, technical support or reservations. Current and former NTI clients work for companies such as Ticket Master, Home Shopping Network, Alamo, AAA Emergency Roadside Assistance, Lens Express, Staples, 800 Flowers, the IRS, the 800 Medicare Hotline and the Department of Labor.

Question 2: How do you define Telework?

Answer: Telework is work that an employee performs from an off-site location, usually the employee's home, over a telephone line. Unlike independent contractors or small-business owners, teleworkers are W-2 employees. The employer withholds taxes and pays statutory benefits. Sometimes they provide health and welfare benefits as well. Telework wages are typically much more dependable than home business earnings.

Question 3: What kinds of telework positions is NTI filling now?

Answer: We're in the midst of filling 100 telework jobs with a major retailer in the Midwest. They employ home-based agents to answer customer questions about product availability and store hours and locations. We're also recruiting another 100 individuals to work for a Florida-based company as quality control monitors. They will listen to thousands of other agents taking calls and grade them on how well they handle the interactions with their callers. Later this summer we'll be recruiting several hundred home-based individuals with disabilities to take orders for IRS Forms and Publications. And we just filled 20 telework positions with the 1-800-Medicare hotline at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

It's important to note that in most cases virtual agents can live anywhere in the country and perform these jobs.

Question 4: Is NTI just for people with disabilities?

Answer: Yes, NTI serves only people with disabilities. We work primarily with clients of state vocational rehabilitation agencies or individuals who are willing to become clients of their state VR agencies. We work with VR agencies because:

  1. VR agencies pay training/support fees to NTI on behalf of their clients, so that the individuals do not have to pay.
  2. VR agencies will usually pay for the equipment and services their clients will require to work from home, such as replacing or upgrading a personal computer or installing high-speed Internet access. Each VR agency decides what they will pay for on a case-by-case basis.
  3. Employers who hire NTI's clients can receive a Work Opportunity Tax Credit if they hire individuals the VR agency certifies as having a disability.

Question 5: What sort of qualifications must people have to perform these customer service telework jobs?

Answer: Individuals must have experience using the Internet and email. They also have to be able to type at least 20 words per minute. Many jobs also require a pleasant voice and good phone etiquette. Call center agents must have a clear, audible voice and be good listeners. However, we also place individuals in quality assurance jobs that require only good listening skills and attention to detail, and not a clear speaking voice. NTI and our call center partners provide the job specific training.

Question 6: Are these jobs in which VR consumers can make a living and get off Social Security benefits?

Answer: Yes, if that is their choice. Some employers will accept applications only from people willing to work full-time. Those individuals will get off benefits.

However, many of the applicants referred to us by VR agencies have very severe disabilities and don't have the stamina for full-time work. Fortunately, most of our participating call center employers allow part-time work as a reasonable accommodation. Those taking part-time jobs usually stay on benefits.

Question 7: What career path do you offer someone starting with a $9-per-hour part-time call center job?

Answer: Individuals who perform well can move up to more demanding and higher-paying call center work. Some of our government jobs pay as much as $17 per hour. Some employees have become call center supervisors or quality control specialists.

NTI facilitates these job transitions as a part of our basic service. And, of course, some people will use call center wages to pay bills as they build their own home-based business. We're committed to offering choices to home-based people with disabilities. These choices will increase as the number of virtual work options increases.

Question 8: We've all seen the commercials that say you can “get rich by working from home.” How do you convince both individuals with disabilities and VR counselors that NTI is not one of these scams?

Answer: We explain that NTI is a non-profit organization that has worked to provide jobs for people with disabilities for more than 10 years. We have large contracts with leading corporations and government agencies like the IRS. People don't become rich in these jobs. They do make competitive wages, usually ranging from $9-14, and the work is steady. We're a certified VR vendor in 31 states right now, which means we've undergone quite a bit of scrutiny from central VR offices. Most importantly for VR agencies, we operate under a performance-based payment system. If we're are not success in assist a consumer with their telework goal, we don't charge the VR agency anything.

Question 9: How are people trained for these jobs?

New employees are trained online directly in their homes. A typical training session is 4-6 hours per day, with a number of breaks. The training lasts from 1-4 weeks, depending on the complexity of the calls the agents will handle.

Students dial into a conference call "bridge" so that they can hear and speak with their instructor and fellow trainees. At the same time, they also connect with their instructor over the Internet using web conferencing software such as WebEx. They can see the instructor's computer screen as she talks to them. Then, as the instructor explains each part of the application, she can demonstrate how to enter information or how to search databases for information.

When it's time to role play, the instructor flips a switch so that everyone in the virtual class can watch as one student plays the role of the agent while another student acts as the caller. The training is the same as if the 8-15 students were sitting in the same classroom instead of in their homes in 10 different states. The students are paid while enrolled in this job-specific training.

Question 10: Who is the employer for these teleworkers?

Answer: The situation varies. Occasionally, the company operating the call center puts the teleworker on its payroll.

More often, NTI is the employer of record in a co-employment arrangement with the call center company. One of the benefits NTI provides its call center clients is a national virtual workforce unburdened by the paperwork involved in being a multi-state employer. Even when NTI is the employer of record, however, the call center client is responsible for the day-to-day management and control of the individual agents.

Sometimes NTI is the sole employer. This situation occurs when NTI handles outsourced federal work under the Javits-Wagner-O'Day (JWOD) Program.

There is no relationship between the employer-employee arrangement and the length of time an employee can expect to hold his or her job. Other than the occasional seasonal contract, we intend all telework positions to be long-term.

Question 11: What is the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Program?

Answer: The JWOD Act, which Congress passed in 1938, provides employment opportunities for Americans with severe disabilities. It directs federal government organizations to buy products and services from participating community-based nonprofit agencies dedicated to training and employing individuals with disabilities.

Question 12: JWOD has come under recent attack in the Senate, who point out that fewer than 6 percent of workers in the program were being placed into mainstream jobs. How do you answer the critics?

Answer: NTI does not place people with disabilities in sheltered workshops nor do we pay sub-minimum wages. Almost all of our jobs are with large mainstream companies or government agencies and wages are always competitive for the industry. NTI's goal is to give people with disabilities choices. Via NTI they can work from anywhere in the country in a location that is most accessible for them. Needless to say, those who prefer to travel to a central location to perform their work would look to employers in their local area. They would choose not to use NTI.

Questions 13: How is NTI funded?

Historically NTI was primarily grant funded and we still rely on grants to fuel our growth. Federal agencies such as the Dept of Education and Dept of Labor have funded NTI's telework research. NTI has received support from private foundations such as Mott, AT&T, Robert Wood Johnson and Fidelity. As NTI is beginning to achieve economies of scale, fees collected from VR agencies are starting to play a more important role. NTI charges VR agencies a $3,300 training/support fee contingent upon the consumer achieving at least 90 days in telework employment. NTI is also generating revenue from federal telework contracts acquired under the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Program.

Question 14: If I want to apply for an NTI job what should I do?

Answer: First, go to our website at www.nticentral.org and click on the "Apply for Jobs" button. That will take you to a page listing all the current job openings. Even if you're not interested in or qualified for the jobs that are open at the moment, go ahead and apply if you meet the general requirements. NTI contacts every applicant within 10 business days of receiving an application and conducts a phone interview to assess the candidate's qualifications and needs. Our staff provides applicants with suggestions on how to become a VR client if they aren't one already.

Most importantly, we'll put the applicant's information in our database. Unlike organizations that say "we'll keep your application on file" and never call, NTI contacts applicants as job openings occur. We go to our database first as job orders come in, and we expect to be able to place most of the qualified candidates who apply.

Question 15: If VR counselors have consumers who they believe need home-based work, what should they do?

Answer: Again, check the NTI website at www.nticentral.org. Click on the "VR Counselors" button, which takes you to a section only for VR counselors. Make sure that NTI is on your agency's approved vendor list. NTI is currently listed as an approved vendor with 31 state agencies. If your state is already on the list, you can simply refer consumers to the NTI website to apply online. If NTI is not an approved vendor in your state, we ask either the counselor or a central office administrator to email NTI with information about the vendor approval process for their state. When we're invited to apply, NTI pursues vendor approval in that state.

Question 16: What's on the horizon for NTI?

Answer: NTI is riding the wave of the telecommuting revolution within the call center industry. We're currently developing telework jobs for hundreds of people with disabilities each year. Our goal is to turn that number into thousands.

We're also exploring new home-based job niches to meet the special needs of some of our applicants. Check back with us next year to see how we're doing.

For more information:
National Telecommuting Institute, Inc.
1505 Commonwealth Avenue, Suite 330
Boston, MA 02135

Main (617) 787-4426
Toll-free (800) 619-0111
http://www.nticentral.org/

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