Good News/Bad News in the Covid Economy

The COVID pandemic will eventually end, but the US job market may never be the same.

Workplace adjustments that were intended as temporary precautions have evolved into permanent reforms. Depending on how you look at the data, these trends have either radically improved the professional outlook for amputees, or they have reinforced obstacles that have long kept people with disabilities at the margins of the workforce.

Glass half empty or half full? We report; you decide.

Good News—Record-setting Employment

Employment indicators for people with disabilities reached unprecedented highs last fall, according to the National Trends in Disability Employment (nTIDE) report.

Issued by the Kessler Foundation and the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability, the nTIDE report placed the workforce participation rate for people with disabilities at 36.8 percent. This figure represented an increase of 3.5 percentage points over the same period in 2020, a growth rate nine times higher than that achieved by people without disabilities.

“After decades of seeing no real change, more people with disabilities are finding jobs,” wrote Carol Glazor, president of the National Organization on Disability. “While the numbers are still too low, it is more progress than we have seen in a generation.”

The increase in disability employment has likely been driven by several factors, including a workforce upheaval that left companies scrambling to fill positions; work-from-home protocols that level the playing field for people with disabilities; and the ongoing emphasis on equity and inclusion.

While cheering the good news, Glazor cautioned that there’s still a long way to go. “More companies need to include everyone when they have job openings,” she wrote, “and Congress needs to act on behalf of people with disabilities.”

Bad News—Persistent Employment Gaps

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis determined that people with disabilities have achieved slower employment growth during the COVID recovery than every other diversity, equity, and inclusion demographic category. And it isn’t close.

Since employers began rehiring in mid-2020, disability workforce participation rose about 3.5 percentage points (as noted by nTIDE)—but Black, Hispanic, and female employment increased by 6 to 9 percentage points, and teenage employment increased 11 points.

“For nearly 20 months,” observed CNBC employment reporter Morgan Smith, “debates about the future of work have dominated meetings as the coronavirus pandemic upended every aspect of our jobs.” People with disabilities, however, “continue to be left out of many of these critical conversations.”

“The US now sits at 10.9 million-plus job openings,” added Keith Parker, an executive for Goodwill Industries. Nearly all of those positions could be filled by unemployed and underemployed workers with disabilities, Parker noted. “The talent pool and available workforce are right in front of us.”

With remote-work routines now well established, it’s never been easier for employers to maximize the talents of disabled workers. “Not only does this get Americans back to work,” Parker writes, “but it also helps narrow disparities in employment and spark a new era of the modern American workforce.”

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