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Special needs worker in warehouse setting

Impact on the Workforce and People with Disabilities

by Thomas Golden

The layers of complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to peel away, revealing greater vulnerabilities yet to be understood and explored. While according to the 2018 American Community Survey over 156 million people over the age of 16 were employed in our economy, people with disabilities represented only about nine million of that number—or 24% of the total population of people with disabilities. These employment statistics for Americans with disabilities were abysmal prior to the current pandemic crisis, but have been even further decimated in the wake of COVD-19as doors to employment have shut.

Over 43% of Americans with disabilities employed in 2018 worked in those industries now most affected by the crisis including: construction; wholesale and retail trades; arts and entertainment; transportation; and. other services. These employment statistics represent the further unique complexity that many people with disabilities have to navigate to match their skills and abilities with industry demands—often requiring a catalyst known as an employment service provider to match the supply and demand. It is in this interaction that we need to gain a deeper understanding of the obstacles to returning to “life as normal” as the country begins to open back up and policy and practice strategies that are needed to ensure employment statistics for Americans with disabilities return strong.

A small sample of Employment Service Providers report between 30% to 65% of those individuals they have placed into employment experiencing furlough, work hour reductions, or choosing to voluntarily leave employment to mitigate risks for themselves and perhaps other vulnerable populations they live with. These reductions have had a ripple effect as the need for on-the-job supports from employment service providers has reduced, resulting in a reduction in their own workforces. These providers of essential employment support services for people with disabilities have voiced concerns about their ability to meet the re-employment needs not only represented by those experiencing furlough, but also by the growing numbers of youth and adults with disabilities newly seeking employment. This is further complicated by not knowing what trades and markets will open first, the rate at which this will occur, regional variances, and whether hiring needs will remain the same. All of these factors have contributed to these human service agencies attempting to provide supports in new and innovative ways although some report digital divide barriers for many of the individuals with disabilities they work with and their inability to connect virtually. Some also report challenges in maintaining relationships and communications with industry sectors and businesses hit hardest by the crisis.

While the future of work is an unknown variable at best, ensuring that the door to employment for the population of Americans with disabilities doesn’t remain shut is our number one priority. Equipping business and industry to advance inclusive workplace practices to further advantage a diverse workforce in a post-COVID environment is essential. Building the capacity of Employment Services Providers to ramp up expedited services to meet the growing need for employment services is critical—especially those that fast track skill building and readiness for employment in a post-COVID environment. Finally, the economic impact experienced by Americans with disabilities is compounded by the economic disparities that existed prior to the current crisis. Greater flexibility must be exercised in the implementation of policies that support financial entitlements and benefits to the population of people with disabilities—ensuring critical incentives to re-employment and employment in the future.

Thomas Golden

  • Executive Director, Yang-Tan Institute

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