Disabled employment surged in COVID; 2024 less certain

I participated in an entertainment fellowship that was initially in LA, but it opened up nationally.” HOW LONG WILL IT LAST? Some recent data show the momentum for disabled worker employment gains is petering out, and some economists and policy experts say job-seekers with disabilities may face a different outlook in 2024.

Reuters | Updated: 14-02-2024 16:34 IST | Created: 14-02-2024 16:32 IST
Disabled employment surged in COVID; 2024 less certain
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COVID-19 changed the trajectory of Lucy Trieshmann's budding legal career.

Having Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare inherited disorder, Trieshmann found in-person law school lectures unbearable without spending part of the time lying on the floor. Lockdowns in March 2020 meant classes went online, and before long Trieshmann hit a groove attending from home, eventually landing an American Civil Liberties Union fellowship that featured working remotely. "I was able to appear in housing court in New York on behalf of clients and have the energy for them because they were remote," said Trieshmann, who uses she/they pronouns.

Trieshmann ranks among the roughly 2 million Americans with a disability to land a job or start looking for one since December 2019, Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show. That's an unprecedented 30% increase in workforce participation by a group that before the pandemic saw four of every five disabled individuals on the sidelines, a rate now down to three of every four. Workforce participation for people with disabilities has risen alongside an upswing in the wider U.S. population identified in BLS data as disabled, driven experts say by increased self-identification by those with debilitating mental illness and long-COVID. For many the abundance of remote-work options that flourished during COVID opened job opportunities long shut to them. A defiantly strong job market helped, too.

“A tight labor market lifts all boats, and work from home or remote work has kind of expanded opportunities for some segments of disabled workers, and that's been a boost for their job opportunities,” said Andrew Flowers, labor economist at Appcast, a digital recruitment firm. As 2024 begins and more employers push return-to-office policies, it may mean those gains are at a turning point. Indeed, while BLS data smoothed over six-month horizons shows an ongoing uptrend, figures viewed over three-month periods have started flattening out.

LONG HAULER AWARENESS Netia McCray's experience may explain some of the dynamic rise in disabled employment.

Bed-ridden with COVID in early 2020, she suffered severe seizures, reduced cognitive function, and blood microclotting that pushed her to step back as chief executive officer of education non-profit Mbadika. McCray bounced between part-time work and leave-of-absence status. When she returned to the office in 2022, it was with a new sense of identity: Disabled, with long-COVID.

Around 7.5% of Americans aged 18-and-older experienced long-COVID, a condition that significantly limited activity for 25% of sufferers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms range from fatigue to brain fog, lasting anywhere from a week to years. "It took me a while to understand it was a disability," McCray said. "I was under the old-school definition that if someone looked at me and could not see a disability, I should not dare claim the term – because there are people who are judged daily because they cannot hide their disability."

McCray's journey is emblematic of an important shift, said Ariel Simms, president and chief executive officer of RespectAbility, a nonpartisan disability advocacy group. "Nobody would have wished for COVID, certainly, but it has brought greater awareness to disability issues in the workforce, as well around mental health and chronic conditions."

WELCOME TO SHOW-BIZ For Tameka Citchen-Spruce, an entertainment industry that once required her to travel thousands of miles for professional development arrived at her Detroit doorstep in early 2020.

As COVID cases surged, Citchen-Spruce, 39 and a filmmaker and community health advocate who has used a wheelchair since childhood, shifted to marketing viewings of her documentary online rather than arranging cumbersome in-person viewings. Her documentary, "My Girl Story," went on to gain numerous official film festival selections. Remote and hybrid work also allowed Citchen-Spruce to evade bias about her ability to navigate sets and work in the field.

“If you wanted to get into the industry in the past, you had to go in-person to [Los Angeles] or New York,” said Citchen-Spruce. “A lot of networking opportunities started going online during the pandemic. I participated in an entertainment fellowship that was initially in LA, but it opened up nationally.” HOW LONG WILL IT LAST?

Some recent data show the momentum for disabled worker employment gains is petering out, and some economists and policy experts say job-seekers with disabilities may face a different outlook in 2024. For one, a report from Resume Builder showed 90% of companies plan to roll out return-to-office policies by the end of 2024, which could resurrect a pre-COVID barrier for many.

To keep people with disabilities employed, Stacy Cervenka, senior director of policy at RespectAbility, said the federal government and state agencies should act as model employers and set workplace guidelines that are inclusive of remote-work. Some disabled job seekers, like Trieshmann who is now looking for a position as an attorney after completing the ACLU fellowship in December, say they are beginning to feel RTO ripple effects. After receiving an initial job offer last year and traveling to meet interviewers in-office, Trieshmann said the position was revoked.

“People were asking inappropriate questions, questioning my basic capabilities to my job as a result of my disability — even though my disability is the entire reason I became an attorney in the first place and what motivates me to show up and do this work,” said Trieshmann. Trieshmann, who is immunocompromised, has turned down other job offers and narrowed their job search to majority-disabled workplaces, hoping a more inclusive workplace will encourage workers to stay home when sick, wear masks, and maintain remote-work and other holdover policies from the pandemic.

At RespectAbility, Simms is worried about the outlook. “I do think we're reaching a turning point. To much of the world, the pandemic is behind us. And therefore remote work is behind us,” she said.


(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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