Employment of Disabled Reaches Record High: Why?

Kessler Foundation

East Hanover, NJ – March 1, 2023. In this month’s nTIDE Deeper Dive Lunch & Learn Webinar we explored the factors underlying the unprecedented rise in the employment of people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic while continuing to follow trends in the labor market. This webinar followed two key unemployment indicators–the number unemployed and the proportions of unemployed persons that are on temporary layoffs (i.e., furloughs), comparing trends for people with and without disabilities.

“In January, we saw a large increase in the proportion of unemployed people with disabilities who are on furlough, which went from 6 percent to 17 percent, a level we haven’t seen since February 2021,” said nTIDE expert Andrew Houtenville, PhD, professor of economics at the University of Hampshire (UNH) and research director of the UNH Institute on Disability. “There was a similar increase for people without disabilities, although the increase started several months ago, from 8 percent in September 2022 to 18 percent in January 2023,” he added.

“We saw a large rise in the use of furloughing during the COVID-19 lockdown in the spring of 2020, so why are we seeing this increase in furloughing now? It may reflect a seasonal effect or companies facing supply-chain issues attempting to keep contact with existing employees that they currently can utilize,” noted Dr. Houtenville. “We want to see people with disabilities maintain their recent momentum in the labor market, so we will be following these indicators closely,” he emphasized, “and taking a deeper dive into the factors that are contributing to their recent successes.”

Deeper Dive into Historic Highs

“It’s important to note how the pandemic lockdown dramatically altered the landscape for jobseekers with disabilities,” Dr. Houtenville remarked. “Although jobs declined for people with and without disabilities during lockdown, people with disabilities have recovered from those losses – and recovered at historic highs,” he continued. “Their job numbers have grown – not only beyond their pre-pandemic levels – but beyond their 2008 pre-Great Recession levels as well. The question we are all asking is: How they have achieved these impressive gains when people without disabilities have yet to hit their pre-COVID peak?”

Ari Ne’eman, our guest speaker during the recent nTIDE Deeper Dive Webinar, explored some of the contributing factors. Ne’eman is senior research associate at the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, a visiting scholar at the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy at Brandeis University, and co-author of the paper “How Has COVID Impacted Disability Employment?” (doi.org/10.1016/j.dhjo.2022.101429) recently published in the Disability and Health Journal.

“There have been many more gains for people with disabilities,” confirmed Ne’eman, “and these have been driven by increased labor force participation, especially in telework jobs.” The shift to telework during the pandemic lockdown in many instances became the norm – and people with disabilities are more likely to succeed in this area, according to Ne’eman. “We are seeing a much faster rate of growth for people with disabilities in teleworkable jobs as compared to non-teleworkable jobs.”

“The labor force participation rate has grown dramatically, possibly from people with disabilities previously not in the labor force who are now entering it,” Ne’eman said, adding, “The ongoing tight labor market may be contributing to the rise in their participation.”

Long COVID may be another factor in the increase in workers with disabilities, according to Ne’eman. Workers newly disabled by long COVID are retaining their employment, adding to the population of workers with disabilities.

These theories are consistent with findings from the 2022 Kessler Foundation National Employment & Disability Survey: Effects of COVID-19 Pandemic on Supervisor Perspectives. “Compared with our 2017 survey, we found big shifts to remote work, flexible hours, and job sharing in 2022, and the majority of supervisors felt these changes would be maintained. Also in 2022, 40% of supervisors reported having employees with lasting effects of COVID-19, and 58% of those supervisors reported that these employees received accommodations,” recounted Dr. Houtenville, a survey co-author.

Ask Questions about Disability and Employment

The mid-month nTIDE Deeper Dive Lunch & Learn is broadcast live via Zoom Webinar from 12 PM to 1 PM Eastern by nTIDE experts with invited guests. As economic conditions continue to evolve, the nTIDE Deeper Dive will expand to cover disability employment measures for different sub-populations, including age, education, race, and disability type.

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