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Work and the Coronavirus

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Helping people understand how COVID-19 affects work and employment by sharing insights and help from ILR's workplace experts.

New Employment Numbers: What They Mean for People with Disabilities

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Hassan Enayati

Ellice Switzer

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recently released the April 2020 employment numbers. They reveal a national unemployment rate of 14.7%. Table A-6 of the report shows that 14.3% of people (16 years and older) without a disability are unemployed compared to 18.9% of people with a disability. Among “working-age” men and women with disabilities (i.e., those between 16 and 64 years old), the unemployment rate is 19.7% compared to 14.2% for those without disabilities.

Some people criticize the use of the unemployment rate as a primary indicator of labor market outcomes for people with disabilities. This is because, they argue, that it excludes what might be a disproportionately larger number of discouraged or otherwise marginally attached workers with disabilities compared to those without disabilities. Although this use might typically be controversial, at the moment it is highly relevant. There are many systemic obstacles facing people with disabilities. These obstacles prevent them from fully engaging in the labor market, and the unemployment rate is not designed to capture this information. What it can show us is the current loss of employment for those who recently held a job. In April 2019, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 6.3%. Today it is 18.9%.

The employment-population ratio (EPR) is a less contentious metric to describe the labor market outcomes for people with disabilities. Like the unemployment rate, it also shows significant losses for those with disabilities. The EPR fell to 16.1% for people with disabilities over 16 years old (26.3% for those in the working-age group) compared to an EPR of 55.9% for those without a disability (63.2% among working aged). Compared to the EPRs from April 2019, both working-age people with disabilities and those without have had an annual loss of 15%. This means that people with and without disabilities are already facing larger annual losses than experienced during the Great Recession.

New York State is counting on billions of dollars in federal aid to avoid drastic budget cuts. If enacted, those cuts would ultimately affect systems and agencies providing employment services and critical wrap-around supports to people with disabilities. These cuts could create the perfect storm of problems for workers with disabilities in the job market. This is alongside reduced services and support to help them find jobs.

The result could be an amplification of the negative effects of job loss for years to come. State and local agencies are already facing capacity issues. More people with disabilities are requesting support and services from organizations that are financially vulnerable. State policy makers will need to shore up the critical human service infrastructure in New York State, to ensure the equitable distribution of economic recovery efforts, and prevent further backsliding for vulnerable populations.