Unemployment numbers stabilizing at higher than pre-pandemic numbers

Kessler Foundation

East Hanover, NJ. July 28, 2021. For two consecutive months, the number of people unemployed has increased, according to today’s National Trends in Disability Employment (nTIDE) COVID Update, as economic recovery continues to face the ongoing challenges of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic precipitated an unprecedented rise in furloughs and people looking for work, prompting the addition of this mid-month nTIDE COVID Update in the spring of 2020. The mid-month nTIDE follows two key unemployment indicators – furloughs, or temporary layoffs, and the number of people looking for work, comparing trends for people with and without disabilities.

June’s nTIDE COVID Update graphic shows that the number of unemployed people with and without disabilities has stabilized, but at levels higher than pre-pandemic levels, according to economist Andrew Houtenville, PhD, research director of the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability, and co-author of nTIDE. The levels are substantial, with increments of 200,000 for people with disabilities, and approximately 3 million for people without disabilities, indicating that many people have not yet returned to the labor market.

Dr. Houtenville pointed out the sharp contrast with past trends: “This time of the year is traditionally the height of the summer hiring season, but in 2021, we are not seeing the usual impact of seasonal jobs for May and June. Delayed rebound in the entertainment and dining sectors may be one of the factors, and some workers may still be hesitant to return due to safety concerns.”

Data for June show that furloughs continue at relatively low levels, approaching pre-pandemic levels, a positive sign for people with and without disabilities. Public health concerns, however, warrant caution. “Spread of the delta variant, which is more contagious and causes more serious illness, could trigger lockdowns in areas of the country where vaccination rates are low,” Dr. Houtenville noted. “If that occurs, we may see an increase in furloughs.”

Notes from the Field

Disability employment expert John O’Neill, PhD, shared the experiences of a vocational service provider that is working to maintain jobs for workers with disabilities. Dr. O’Neill, director of the Center for Employment and Disability Research at Kessler Foundation, sits on the board of Job Path NYC, a New York City-based nonprofit that provides customized employment services for people with autism and developmental disabilities. In December 2020, 70 out of 250 of Job Path’s clients were furloughed. The subsequent rate of return to work has been slow, with 42 out of 250 clients still waiting to be called back in July.

Many of these workers have jobs in theaters, schools, and restaurants, which are slowly reopening, which may contribute to prolonged furloughs. Another factor relates to the structure of customized placements. “These jobs often rely on supports across an organization, which may be harder to restart, especially when workplaces are undergoing radical changes.”

Dr. O’Neill cautioned against extrapolating these observations, emphasizing that customized employment involves a minority of workers with disabilities. Regardless of employment type, Drs. Houtenville and O’Neill agreed on the importance of early intervention when workers with disabilities lose their jobs. “The longer they are disconnected from their employer, the harder it is to re-enter the workforce,” said Dr. Houtenville. “State programs that emphasize rapid response to job loss are good resources for helping return-to-work and stay at work,” added Dr. O’Neill.

As the economy evolves, Dr. O’Neill pointed out the prospects for different types of jobs. “By maintaining their connections to employers, workers with disabilities will be better positioned to take advantage of new opportunities in the workplace.”

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