Three years after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out millions of jobs, a historic labor market recovery is drawing workers from all corners of the economy — and workers with disabilities are among the biggest beneficiaries.
Federal data released Friday showed the economy added 311,000 jobs in February, beating economists’ expectations. It’s the latest sign that employers overall remain hungry for workers, despite a continuing wave of layoffs among big-name companies.
While that hunger has brought the country’s overall unemployment rate back to pre-pandemic levels, unemployment among people with disabilities has dropped below 2020 levels.
At 7.3% last month, the unemployment rate among workers with disabilities is down from 8.8% a year earlier. However, this figure is higher than the national unemployment rate of 3.6% for all workers and 3.7% among workers with disabilities, underscoring the barriers that many disabled workers face even in a red-hot labor market. .
Catherine Latorre is among those who have benefited from the job boom.
The 60-year-old with stage 3 heart failure works as a cashier at a supermarket in Cheshire, Connecticut. She’s only been on the job for a week, jumping from a role she’s had at a local YMCA for a few months.
Before January, Latorre said he had been out of work for four years. Despite struggling with some of the physical tasks at the supermarket, she said her duties are more secure for her. And while the new role pays about the same as her previous one, her hours allow her to take classes to complete her high school degree.
Latorre said she wanted to go back to work because she had to take care of a sister who was diagnosed with cancer.
“People can’t survive on disability, especially with the prices that are going to be crazy now,” she said.
Ability Beyond, a nonprofit that provides employment assistance to people with disabilities in Connecticut and New York, helped connect Latorre with her current job. Carrie O’Connell, director of programs and services for Ability Beyond, said businesses are eagerly seeking help from programs like hers.
“The tide has turned,” O’Connell said. “Businesses are coming to us knowing that this is a great group of people who can and should be working, and want us to find job opportunities for them.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 1 in 4 adults in America has a disability. Disabilities range from cognitive conditions to autism spectrum disorders to hearing, movement and vision impairments. And while many Americans have a lifelong disability, some conditions that affect employment are temporary or situational.
In addition to the sheer number of open positions — there were about 10.8 million unfilled roles nationwide as of the end of January, up from 7 million pre-pandemic — other factors may be driving disabled workers into the labor force: broad-based wage benefits, income need As inflation squeezes household finances, more hybrid and remote opportunities arise, and corporate efforts to diversify their workforce through expanded housing.
There is also Covid.
A study released in October by the Brookings Institution suggested that the vast majority of disabled Americans who are working suffer from a constellation of symptoms known as “long Covid,” many of which occur months after infection. or may last for years.
Brookings researchers estimated last summer that prolonged Covid could put 4 million Americans out of work. But noting that the labor force rate of people with disabilities has risen sharply since the start of the pandemic, Lewis Sheiner, a senior fellow and co-author of the October study, said that despite millions of other people grappling with the effects is likely to do. Long covid.
“We think it’s mostly a composition effect,” Sheiner said. Many adults with prolonged COVID symptoms, he said, “push down overall labor force participation, but they increase labor force participation of people with disabilities.”
Experts and disability advocates say that some workplaces have become less friendly to professionals with disabilities.
Ari Nieman, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, analyzed government data on employment among people with disabilities since the pandemic began and found that workers with disabilities saw greater job gains in telework positions than those without disabilities. Niemann said this trend may simply reflect a jump in job opportunities, but could also be the result of “systemic change” that has made some jobs more accessible.
“If indeed, there is an explanation for our findings, it would suggest that these benefits may persist even as the economy cools,” Niemann said.
In 2014, Matthew Shapiro, 32, started 6 Wheels Consulting, based in Richmond, Virginia, to advise businesses on disability-related issues. Shapiro, who was born with cerebral palsy and uses a power wheelchair, said the past year has brought in the most revenue to date.
Shapiro said he now enjoys the greater ability to pick and choose which projects to handle on-site versus from home. He was recently hired by an architecture firm to consult on the reconstruction of the Virginia Supreme Court building. In September, he advised the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee to redesign its parking lot.
“I worked harder than I’ve worked in the last two and a half, three years because I could do everything from home,” Shapiro said. “Traveling for meetings, traveling to meet with different clients—it all went out the window.”
Before the pandemic, Shapiro said he and other disability rights advocates pushed for years for more flexible work schedules, to little avail.
“The excuse we always heard is, ‘Oh, we can’t do that, because it would require us to have all these accommodations and have everyone be in the office from 9 to 5,'” he said. “Now we know all that stuff is bullshit.”
Like Shapiro, many handicappers have started To avoid such wrangling with your own business, employers. Government statistics show that 9.5% of workers with disabilities are self-employed, compared to 6.1% of those without disabilities.
Colette DiVitto graduated from Clemson University in South Carolina, but says she was turned away by job interviews two years ago in Boston. DeVito said that when employers learned she had Down syndrome she was sometimes told she was “not a good fit”. So she started her own cookie company seven years ago, eventually hiring 15 employees—half of whom are people with disabilities.
“It breaks my heart for the people who can’t find jobs,” DiVitto said. “It’s hard, because I know exactly how it feels for those who can’t find jobs. Because they really want to make a living, really want to pay the bills on time.