Employers desperate for employees are rethinking job requirements, rethinking hiring processes and working with nonprofit groups they may have previously ignored.
At the same time, companies’ new openness to remote work has provided opportunities for people with disabilities who make face-to-face work and daily commutes difficult or impossible.
As a result, the proportion of adults with disabilities has increased over the past two years beyond pre-pandemic levels and outpaced gains for those without disabilities.
In interviews and surveys, people with disabilities report not only getting more job opportunities, but also being more open to being offered better ones, with higher pay, more flexibility and conditions they would have previously struggled to get.
“The new world we live in has opened the door a little wider,” said Jean Bose, president and CEO of the Northwest Center, a Seattle-based organization that helps people with disabilities become more independent. “Doors are opening wide because workers are in high demand.”
Sameer Patel, 42, who lives in the Seattle area, has a college degree and a certificate in accounting. But he has autism spectrum disorder, which has made it difficult for him to find a stable job. He spent most of his life in temporary jobs available through recruitment agencies. The longest lasted more than a year; Many lasted only a few months.
This summer, Patel landed a full-time permanent job as an accountant at a local nonprofit group. The job brought him a 30% pay raise, along with pension benefits, more predictable hours, and other perks. Now she’s considering buying a house, traveling and dating — steps that seemed impossible without the stability of a steady job.
“It’s a confidence gain,” he said. “There were times when I felt left behind.”
His disability affects his speech and makes communication difficult, and he worked with an employment coach at the Northwest Center to help him. Although Patel normally prefers working in an office, his new boss allows him to work remotely when he needs to — a big help on days when office emotions run high.
Federal law prohibits most employers from discriminating against people with disabilities and requires them to make reasonable adjustments to include these people. But research has found that discrimination is common: A 2017 study found that job seekers who reported a disability were 26% less likely to be interested in prospective employers.
Even when they do find work, disabled workers face barriers to success, from bathroom doors they can’t open to hostile co-workers.
Workers with disabilities — as well as other groups that face barriers, such as those with criminal records — benefit disproportionately from tighter labor markets when employers have greater incentives to seek out untapped talent pools. But when the recession hits, those opportunities quickly disappear.
“We have a ‘last-in, first-out’ labor market, and people with disabilities are often the last and first-out,” said Adam Ozimek, chief economist at the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington research organization. .
However, telecommuting has the potential to break this cycle, at least for some workers. In a new study, Ozimek found that employment for disabled workers across all sectors increased as the job market improved, following the usual pattern.
But it has improved especially rapidly in industries and professions where remote work is more common. Many economists believe that, unlike an overheated labor market, the shift to remote work will last longer.
More than 35% of Americans with disabilities between the ages of 18 and 64 had jobs in September, up from 31% just before the pandemic — a record in the government’s 15-year record. Among adults without disabilities, 78% were employed, but their employment rates have returned to pre-pandemic levels.
“Adults with disabilities have seen employment rates recover very quickly,” said Ozimek. “It’s good news, and it’s important to understand whether it’s a temporary thing or a permanent thing. My conclusion is that it’s not just a permanent thing, it’s going to be good.”
The sudden adoption of remote work during the pandemic has met with some ire from some disability rights leaders, who have tried for years, often unsuccessfully, to convince employers to offer more flexibility to their employees.
“It’s a little frustrating that corporate America said telecommuting is something our society has been championing for decades, and it’s so complicated, it’s going to cost productivity, and now all of a sudden it’s like: Sure, let’s do it,” he said. Charles-Edouard Catherine is director of corporate and government relations at the National Organization for Disability.
However, this change is welcome. Catherine, who is blind, doesn’t come home with cuts on her forehead and sores on her legs unless she has to go to work. For those with more severe mobility limitations, remote work is the only option.
Many employers are reducing work from home and encouraging or requiring employees to return to the office. But experts expect remote and hybrid work to be more common and widely accepted than before the pandemic.
Covid could also change the legal landscape. In the past, employers often resisted offering remote work as a solution to workers with disabilities, and judges rarely required them to do so. But that could change now as more companies adapt to remote work in 2020, said Arlene S., director of the Disability Law and Policy Program at Syracuse University School of Law.
“If others can show that they can do their jobs better from home, as they did during the Covid era, people with disabilities should not be denied that right to adapt,” Kanter said.
Kanter and other experts caution that not all people with disabilities want to work remotely. And many jobs cannot be done at home. A disproportionate share of disabled workers are employed in trade and other sectors where remote work is not the norm. Despite recent gains, people with disabilities are less likely to be employed and more likely to live in poverty than people without disabilities.
“When we say it’s historically high, that’s absolutely true, but we don’t want to send the wrong message and knock ourselves down,” Catherine said. “We’re still twice as unemployed, and we’re still underpaid when we’re lucky enough to get a job.”
Luis Roberto M. Translated by Gonsalves
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