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The employment rate for individuals with disabilities has soared since the mid-2020 depths of the COVID crisis. 

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics; employment rate for population with disabilities, 16 years and over (in thousands)

 

The driving factors behind this remarkable surge include telework and a tight labor market.

With care and foresight, despite the inevitable ups and downs of the economy, employers can help protect these gains.

 

How Telework and a Tight Labor Market Have Favored Disability Employment

In the past, economic downturns severely impacted the employment rate for individuals with disabilities significantly more than for those without disabilities.  However, a recent study shows that during the COVID crisis those with disabilities lost jobs at a rate equal to that for non-disabled workers.  The unemployed with disabilities then found work faster than the non-disabled.

Telework helped many individuals with disabilities weather the Covid storm.  The study note above indicates that the rate at which the disabled were engaged in telework exceeded that of the non-disabled work force prior to the pandemic.  The working disabled already in home offices had fewer adjustments to make than non-disabled peers.

Once hiring resumed, many employers posted 100% remote work to incent applications from those concerned about contracting Covid in an office setting.  The emphasis on work-from-home favored those in the disability community and their caregivers for whom office-based work has always been a challenge.

 

Will ‘Return to Work’ Erode Gains Made for the Disability Community?

A January 2023 Resume Builder report states that 9 out of 10 companies will require employees to work from the office in 2023.  Goldman Sachs, Comcast, General Motors, Starbucks, Disney, and Twitter are reducing work from home, eliminating it, or reducing it to one or two days per week.  This follows a drop in postings for remote, 100% telework assignments, which peaked at 21% of offerings in March 2022.

Nevertheless, there are factors indicating that full telework, not just the “hybrid” mix of work from home and office work, may remain a significant part of the post-Covid work environment.   Goldman Sachs found productivity increased by 3% during the pandemic, particularly in IT, professional services, and product development, functions for which remote work is particularly appropriate.  The National Bureau of Economic Research finds a nearly 5% increase in productivity due to telework.  Yelp and other companies continue to champion fully remote positions.  They argue that because remote employees can work from anywhere, they can be hired from anywhere – increasing the likelihood of engaging the best and the brightest.

As of January 2023, over 11 million job openings remained unfilled.  Covid continues to complicate this job picture.  A 2022 Brookings Institute study found that Long Covid is keeping 4 million people out of work –more than a third of the number of unfilled jobs.   In addition, ten million Americans have immune system disorders; millions more live with family members who do.  Many of those affected cannot vaccinate against the disease, for others the vaccines are not effective.  They, or their family members, are concerned about returning to an office environment where mask mandates and quarantine requirements are no longer in place.

The disabled, their caregivers, those disabled with Long Covid, and those with medical immunity issues will continue to benefit from work-at-home arrangements that enable them to be part of the workforce and manage their or their loved-ones’ health.

 

Conclusion

The hybrid work-from-home/work-from-office arrangement does not address the needs of many disabled workers.  Fully remote work helps those with mobility issues for whom commuting can be daunting.  It also helps those with intermittent physical or mental conditions who benefit from the flexible work schedules easily arranged when one is working from home, as well as those with medical conditions treatable at home during lunchtime or breaks.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is aware of the degree to which work at home can be important to the disabled community.  Its Draft Strategic Enforcement Plan for 2023—2027 announces a focus on work accommodations for persons with disabilities, including those who have a disability related to COVID-19.  There is every reason to believe that the EEOC will closely scrutinize denials of work-from-home arrangements for individuals with disabilities.

The disability community has sought increases in telework for years.  Recent employment numbers demonstrate the beneficial effect that increased telework represents for individuals with disabilities.  This is a silver lining to the dark cloud that has been Covid.

Let’s encourage employers pushing for some form of return to the office to keep in mind that remote work for the disabled and their caregivers will always be a valuable means of securing talent and meeting business needs.

Author

Paul McGovern
Managing Partner
Praxis Compliance

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