After being overlooked and marginalized in the job market for generations, Americans with disabilities are enjoying an unprecedented job boom thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The widespread acceptance of working from home and the overall labor shortage have opened up historic opportunities for some of the country’s most skilled and underutilized workers.
“I’m proud to be able to go out and make a living, especially working from home, and as a blind person I can do that,” said a data analyst in central Texas who has held three remote jobs since the pandemic. said 39-year-old Bobby Pelechia. He started every time he moved up a position and paid.
The question now is whether people with disabilities can maintain these benefits as a recession looms and more employers pressure their employees to return to the office.
Experts see this fight as affecting not just people with disabilities, but the entire US economy. And a solution may only come through a legal battle and a review of the country’s landmark anti-discrimination law, the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Employment for people with disabilities has increased by nearly 25% since the pandemic began last month, surpassing 7.3 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This contrasts with the rest of US employment, which has yet to catch up to the level of three years ago.
The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is typically in double digits, falling from 12.3% two years ago to 5.8% in November. This is almost double the proportion of all workers over the age of 16, but the lowest proportion of people with disabilities since record-keeping began in 2008.
“This was a complete game changer,” said Mason Ameri, an associate professor at Rutgers University who oversees disability employment.
He noted that the transition to telework has been particularly helpful for people with physical disabilities and limited mobility. “It’s their advantage that he can commute in 10 seconds,” he says Ameri.
Before the pandemic hit, Russell Rawlings, 45, who has cerebral palsy and lives in Sacramento, was in the office Monday through Friday, working at a nonprofit independent living center.
Rawlings woke up at 5am and was at work by 8am, even though his commute was just 2 miles from home. It took him that long to get ready and get in his power wheelchair to the bus stop and desk. Rainy days made it even worse. He needed someone to help him put on his poncho before he left.
In March, Rawlings started a new job as an education organizer for Hand in Hand, which helps domestic workers.
It’s a dramatic shift from years ago when Rawlings struggled to find work, was often confined to her home, and relied on Social Security Income (SSI).
Now, thanks in large part to the widespread acceptance of remote work, not only has he eliminated the difficult commute, he’s now in a position that gives him greater self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment.
“I spent years on SSI and it seemed impossible,” he said. “I never thought I could organize a community remotely.”
But despite all the gains made since the pandemic, employers fear it will be too costly or lack adequate services to support employment, leaving people with disabilities Many talented people remain unemployed or underemployed, disability rights advocates say. Workers with disabilities worry that the momentum they have built will be lost now that the economy is in recession.
Layoffs of workers of all kinds have been on the rise recently, hitting many who have been working from home. And more and more companies are telling their employees to return to the office at least part-time.
As such, experts expect a broader shift to remote work to continue in some form, but it is unclear to what extent companies will expand opportunities for people with disabilities and enable them to retain telework options.
The Americans With Disabilities Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. Since the law was enacted in 1990, there has been an ongoing debate about what constitutes “reasonable.”
Nearly three years after telecommuting became the norm, it may be harder for employers to justify refusing to allow employees with disabilities to work from home, lawyers say .
With the pressing needs of their workforce and the ready availability of new tools such as video conferencing and screen readers, employers who have long resisted telework and other environments are now facing the pandemic. changed my mind to
“It’s nice to have this option now, but it’s taken so long and it’s heartbreaking to see what happened overnight. And it’s always been possible.” Disability.
However, even with positive experiences, employers are unlikely to ensure that workers have the right to work from home in all cases.
Fiona Ong, employment attorney for Shawe Rosenthal of Baltimore, general counsel for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said: .
Even then, as Joseph Mobley learned, employees may have to live with alternatives to regular telework.
Mobley, 40, was a patient access supervisor at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. His myosclerosis progressed, causing episodes of sudden fatigue, gait disturbance, and burning eyes and hands. “I used to hug walls to go to meetings,” he recalled.
Over the past few years, Mobley has also worked from home, with most of the staff he supervises working remotely. Mobley earned his reviews for his solid performance.
But when he asked for permission to work from home whenever his condition worsened in 2018, St. Luke’s denied the request and told him to seek approval on a case-by-case basis. Records show that his boss suggested that Mobley use his paid vacation or federal leave for the day.
Mobley retired later that year and sued the hospital.
Last month, the Court of Appeals suggested that St. Luke’s response was a reasonable accommodation, noting that the employer engaged in a good faith process to address the request as required by law, stating that St. Luke’s I got to my side.
However, the judge said in his ruling:
Employment attorney Ong was not involved in the case, but she said she offered a lesson to employers, especially after COVID-19.
“Before the pandemic, many employers were saying, ‘I can’t let managers work remotely,'” Ong said. But “it’s kind of dangerous to say that it doesn’t make sense when someone is doing remote administration and is having success with it.”
COVID-19 has also sparked renewed debate about what constitutes a qualifying disability under the law.
During the pandemic, millions of people took time off from work and stayed home due to underlying health conditions, increasing the risk of serious harm from contracting the virus. , prolonging physical and mental health problems for many people.
Ari Ne’eman and Nicole Maestas of Harvard University, in a new research paper analyzing significant job gains for people with disabilities, found that the number of newly disabled employees with memory and concentration problems is increasing. I discovered that there is Ne’eman said they may have had this condition during the pandemic and his long term could be a symptom of COVID.
Dmitry Borodaenko sued Twitter last month after Elon Musk, the new owner of the San Francisco company, demanded that employees return to the office and meet strict performance standards.
Borodaenko, an engineering manager at Twitter who was hired in June 2021 and worked remotely, alleges in the lawsuit that Musk violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by refusing to provide reasonable accommodation. did.
“He has a disability that makes him vulnerable to COVID-19, so working in an office while the pandemic is still underway would pose an unacceptable risk to his health and life,” he said. I claimed.
Borodenko’s attorney, Shannon Lys Riordan, did not explain her client’s disability beyond what was stated in the lawsuit that he was a cancer survivor.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.
Ne’eman, co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, said regulators, especially the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, are working with employers to set clear expectations about disability considerations in light of what has happened. He said that if he did, many new battles over telework could be avoided. He learned during the pandemic.
Indeed, he said, “an employer shouldn’t be able to simply say, ‘My personal preference is for you to come to the office.'”
The EEOC has issued updated guidelines that reflect changes in the workplace during the pandemic. However, there are few hard and fast rules, emphasizing how each requirement varies from job to job and according to the specific circumstances of workers and employers.
The Kessler Foundation’s Employment and Disability Survey with the University of New Hampshire found that while the pandemic has awakened more employers to the pristine pool of disabled workers, today three in 10 have requested accommodations. We do not have a process that provides
Many experts say the American corporate movement for diversity and inclusion does not see disability status as a priority as much as race and gender.
Despite a genetic disability that impairs both her sight and hearing, Melissa Merrell, 49, has held back her work at Travis Assun. Until the pandemic hit, she was always working in an office.
“Oh my god, my dream has come true,” she said of the change as 2020’s COVID-19 lockdown forced Travis to work remotely.
That was the end of her 11/90th mile commute. But it means more than that. Merrell says her productivity has improved significantly.
“I have more control over the noise around me. In my office, I share one room with three other people, so it’s very difficult to make calls,” she said.
A year ago, Merrell learned that he could work from home permanently. Prior to the pandemic, she never thought telecommuting was an option. Now she has more time and energy to attend her community college to become a chartered accountant. And her ambitions are higher than ever.
“I would like to take on a broader responsibility,” Merrell said.