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Little Rock program linking blind with IRS careers suspended under Trump's hiring freeze

by Stephen Steed | February 3, 2017 at 4:30 a.m. | Updated February 3, 2017 at 11:37 a.m.

The only job-training program in the United States linking the blind or visually impaired with potential careers with the Internal Revenue Service has been suspended under the president's 90-day hiring freeze on civilian federal workers.

Donald Trump's Jan. 23 executive order put a sudden end to the hopes of 10 students at the Little Rock headquarters of the World Services for the Blind, said Sharon Giovinazzo, its president and chief executive officer.

The organization and the IRS have operated the program since 1967, with some 1,300 graduates getting jobs and making careers with the tax agency, Giovinazzo said. "It was horrible, one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in the 17 months I've been here," she said of telling the students about the hiring freeze and how it would affect them.

Founded in Little Rock in 1947, World Services for the Blind is a nationally accredited adult rehabilitation center that provides a college preparatory program, vision rehabilitation, vocational courses, an assisted technology learning center, job-placement assistance and a personal adjustment program.

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The 10 students came from across the United States and have four-year college degrees or equivalent work experience. Tuition fees of $2,650 a month and room and board, at $1,850 a month, are paid by workforce rehabilitation services in their states.

They were in the third week of a four-week skills-evaluations program when IRS officials in Washington, D.C., informed Giovinazzo that the hiring freeze would extend to the jobs program. They were to interview with IRS officials that day about jobs and the possible cities they to which they could have moved.

None of the students, who range in age from 26 to 47, wanted to talk to a reporter, even anonymously, a spokesman for World Services for the Blind said Thursday.

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Once students completed the evaluations and interviews, they would have been enrolled in a 13-week training program to become taxpayer service representatives, one of three career tracks available for study at World Services. The curriculum includes instruction in IRS tax law, accounts, procedures and forms. The other two IRS programs are for service-center collections representatives and contact collections representatives, who screen for unreported income, explain IRS notices to taxpayers, analyze tax records and resolve taxpayers' account problems.

The next class, for the service-center representatives, scheduled for this summer, also will be affected by the hiring freeze, Giovinazzo said.

Since the overall program's start in 1967, the IRS has guaranteed jobs in the agency's offices across the United States to its graduates, Giovinazzo said.

"There is a 70 percent unemployment rate among the blind and the visually impaired," she said. "Our programs were a small part of creating jobs but were a huge part of students' lives. They had dreams of a career, dreams of owning a home, dreams of starting a family, dreams of paying taxes. They'd worked hard and fought tooth and nail to get here. They thought they'd 'arrived.' To now have the carpet yanked out from under them is just devastating."

The students were offered spots in other programs, including training in software and technology, certified administrative assistants, credit counselors and call center specialists.

"But none of those programs have the job guarantees that the IRS offered," Giovinazzo said. "Even if they came in low on the government ladder, at salaries of $35,000 to $38,000, they had all the benefits and the perks of working for the government, which would be an immeasurable boost to their morale."

While the hiring freeze is for 90 days, its effects will last much longer because personnel and budget agencies of the federal government will have to report back to the Trump administration on the effects of the freeze. "Even if we could send them through the program, we'd be setting them up for failure," she said. "It's not like after 90 days, a switch is flipped and everything is back to normal, even for hiring those with disabilities."

In 2013, World Services for the Blind and the IRS had to close down the classes when a budget stalemate in Congress forced a government shutdown and a furlough for many federal workers. "We've been proud of the program, and we still are," Giovinazzo said.

Lee Giurlanda of Peoria, Ariz., a 1973 graduate of the IRS program for taxpayer service representatives, retired from the IRS as a senior manager in 2009 after a 36-year career. A San Diego native, he was 23 when a counselor suggested the IRS program at World Services. He relocated about nine times, for various assignments, during his career.

He said Thursday night that, during his career, he helped about 200 blind or visually impaired people -- most of them graduates of the Little Rock program -- in their jobs with the IRS.

Now a board member for World Services for the Blind, Giurlanda urged patience on the part of the 10 affected by the hiring freeze, and to try again if and when the programs are available. "They need to be patient," he said. "The IRS has long been known as the best agency to hire those with disabilities. It's a program that has benefited the IRS as well as the WSB, and closing it will hurt the IRS as much as it hurts WSB."

A Section on 02/03/2017

Print Headline: In freeze, IRS can't hire blind


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