The circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic presented a wide range of hardships to American citizens and businesses, but has also allowed us to witness the gains and losses to employment rates by people with and without disabilities during that time.
Several factors besides the fear of the transmission of the virus played into the total picture, such as, a higher incidence of “burn out” in the healthcare industry and, more specifically, in nursing home settings where lower wages were reported pre-COVID and may also have been a contributor to vacant positions.
Infection numbers and rates of transmission, quarantine protocol, deaths and long-term health implications resulted in the need for temporary workers and new applicants in most every industry. People who have disabilities saw favorable movement securing employment early on followed by a reduction. While they still experience unemployment rates higher than people who aren’t disabled, unemployment is lower than the numbers before the pandemic. Much attention has been placed on the disadvantages and losses related to the American way of life, including, unemployment and our economy due to the pandemic, therefore, I thought it might be useful to summarize the benefits not often discussed particularly for persons who have disabilities and where employment is concerned.
The points are as follows:
1. More leveled playing field for disabled job seekers in terms of learning about openings (common job boards with less reliance on networking), applying for positions online and interviewing (mostly virtual)
2. Increased pool of available openings (due to positions allowing for telecommuting and, therefore, qualified applicants were able to apply for jobs regardless of location)
3. Gaps in work history were viewed as less important as many people were “in flux” and took extended time off, changed industries or started businesses
4. More “legitimate” home-based jobs were and are now being advertised that can be done virtually or as a hybrid
5. More understanding and sensitivity to disability by the general public and by employers and, further, its impact on working, the barriers of disability as well as other disability related topics
6. Less reliance on the need for transportation or to be located near employment
7. Staff shortages in some industries have helped employers to look beyond gaps and view past experience more favorably than previously
8. Increased interest in hiring people who have disabilities due to recent legislation
9. Increased access and choices for telehealth services as well as other services (employment supports, counseling, training programs) that also transitioned in part to telephone/video conferencing in order to connect with distanced users
10. Less emphasis placed on appearance due to a reliance on virtual interviews and, therefore, it may be more difficult to identify people who have disabilities especially those who have physical disabilities and who choose not to disclose
11. More attention placed on requesting and obtaining workplace accommodations
12. Access to unemployment and government funded Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) forgivable loans for self-employment/small business enabled people who have disabilities to revise business plans and implement changes to business practices and to attempt to project needs moving forward without losing their businesses
13. Increased funding for programs that provide infrastructure to support higher broad band usage and to reach out to rural users, training, technology, internet service and tech support
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- Industries that rely upon “in person” services and did not have the ability to switch to all virtual were hit hardest and are continuing to try to recover, such as, healthcare and hospitality
- Individuals who have disabilities who are less educated or are unskilled are often not qualified to work jobs that can be carried out virtually
- Individuals who have disabilities typically have issues of affordability, access to equipment, access to home-based internet services and may experience more quality and connectivity problems. This put them at a disadvantage when applying for and accepting virtual positions.
- Those people who have “invisible” disabilities, such as, mental illness, still benefitted from gains made in most of the above areas.