The pandemic continues to devour the workforce. Unemployment reached 4% in December – after 2.6% in the previous year. However, some of the workforce – people with disabilities – is even more affected. Workers with disabilities had an unemployment rate of 11% in the fourth quarter of 2020.
The pandemic has disproportionately damaged disabled workers. According to the Institute for Disability at the University of NH, unemployment rose 37% in the first few months of the pandemic and 10,000 jobs were lost. This is in stark contrast to the 13% decrease for non-disabled workers.
Data from the NH Bureau of Developmental Services shows that the top industries employing people with disabilities are retail and customer service (26%), food service (19%), and buildings, land and maintenance (14%) , including the top industries affected by COVID -related layoffs.
Maggie Hinkle, director of career and business services at Nashua-based PLUS Company Inc., says her agency had 130 clients prior to the COVID outbreak and now has about 50 employees. The agency provides career and business services to individuals with developmental disabilities and acquired brain injuries.
Many of those who continue to work cannot work from home, Hinkle adds. “Very often they are frontline workers who take pride in the fact that they are still working and keeping the economy going with things like disinfection and bagging,” she says.
Workers with disabilities return to work much more slowly than those without. While the unemployment rate for people with disabilities has always been higher than the general population (7.3% versus 3.5% in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Labor), the pandemic has widened the gap, says Deborah Ritcey, CEO of Granite State Independent Living, a statewide nonprofit that advocates the independence of people with disabilities and the elderly.
Reasons include: business closures or reduced income, positions unsuitable for remote working, fear of COVID, and a lack of understanding by employers about what is meant by “reasonable accommodation” for workers with disabilities.
In some cases, employees are removing themselves from the available workforce, at least temporarily, because they fear getting COVID. “The biggest problem is the extreme fear of the virus. The reason for this is that many of our customers have weakened immune systems and multiple disabilities, making them more susceptible to the virus,” said Lisa Hinson-Hatz, state director for the NH Department of Education Bureau for vocational rehabilitation that supports people with disabilities in getting and maintaining jobs.
The agency works with both people with disabilities and business partners who need workers. Tracey Frye, the office’s program specialist, says many clients have returned to the workforce or expect to be back to work soon.
Compared to 2019, the number of people with disabilities who wanted to use the agency’s services fell by 31% between March and June, according to Hinson-Hatz.
Jonathan Routhier, executive director of Community Support Network Inc., the trade association of the 10 regional agencies that care for people with developmental and acquired brain disorders, confirms that workers in some of these customer-facing jobs originally moved away out of fear of the workforce catching COVID, but many returned as soon as safety precautions such as masks and disinfectants were required. “The vast majority work outside of the home,” he says of his clients. “The whole idea is to get involved in the community.”
At a January meeting of the NH Bureau of Developmental Services Labor Management Committee that provides support and services to people with developmental and acquired brain disorders, attendees noted that in addition to the lack of remote working options, some customers lack computers and computers cannot go to public places to get access to technology.
Disability advocates say they are unaware of cases where people with disabilities have been fired for wanting to work from home. “I’d have a hard time believing this was happening and it didn’t make the front page of the paper,” says Ritcey.
Such an action would also be illegal. Under the Disabled Americans Act, “the employer’s legal obligation to accept an employee with a disability remains the same,” said Courtney Lockwood, senior admissions attorney at Disability Rights Center-NH.
Instead, advocates report employers doing their best to accommodate disabled workers. “I’ve heard great things about employers creating housing for our individuals,” says Frye. “They could work from home, have flexible schedules, or do this job for them.”
However, accommodations are not one size fits all. A person with trauma-related PTSD may not feel able to wear a mask, someone with autism may need more personal instruction, and an employee with intellectual disabilities may need to be checked in by a manager every hour.
“The law requires individual determination based on that person,” says Lockwood, who estimates her office has received dozens of calls from people seeking advice on how to accommodate their disabilities.
The ADA also stipulates that the placement must not “place undue burden” on the employer. “The ADA requires an interactive process,” says Lockwood. “Employers don’t seem to understand. It’s really important to both sides. It’s not supposed to be controversial, ”she says.
Will jobs return?
A big question is whether job opportunities for people with disabilities will return to pre-COVID levels.
Ritcey fears the pandemic “set us back years” as the number of available labor has increased with the closure of many small businesses due to COVID and people with disabilities may end up at the bottom of the hiring line.
“The unemployment pool is so much bigger because of COVID,” she says. “Before, when the unemployment rate was 3%, they had a better chance of getting a job because not that many people were looking for the same job.”
Lockwood shares this concern, saying, “We have a lot of people out of work right now and at some point there will be a flood in the market. People with disabilities are a great resource for employers. They just don’t seem to realize it. “
But not everyone agrees that the pandemic has further disadvantaged people with disabilities. “I don’t think it’s going to categorically drive people [with disabilities] disproportionately from the workforce, ”says Routhier. “I think we’ve learned a lot about the value of a diverse workforce. All private providers are committed to ensuring that people keep working and that new opportunities arise. “
Hinkle is also optimistic about the employment prospects for people with disabilities. “Once this pandemic is in check, the economy will recover and we will have people in jobs again. Businesses need to rebuild. It could be that employers have to bring back the most skilled people in the beginning, but ultimately there will be a need for the people we work with. “
While waiting for the pandemic recovery, the agencies support busy people and prepare others for the jobs they can get through distance learning.
According to Frye, the Vocational Rehabilitation Bureau “quickly got creative with the services we provide,” empowering them to assist clients claiming unemployment, hold cases open longer than usual, and find temporary employment, “which is usually not ours The goal is. ”
Training programs for people with disabilities “are still doing well,” she adds. “You can still figure out what to do when you grow up, even though it looks like the world is on a hiatus. You can still make a real difference in your life with our program. “
The PLUS Company focuses on programs “to keep individuals ready to work,” says Hinkle. “Like everyone else, the people we work with have lost social contact and interaction. Therefore, the PLUS Company offers around 40 Zoom courses on a variety of topics from music therapy to coping skills to games and employment skills to keep people informed when the pandemic subsides. “
David Morgan, president and CEO of Concord-based Future in Sight, which serves children and adults with blindness or low vision, says his agency has continued to serve almost non-stop through innovation. “In this environment, it’s adapt or die,” he adds.
Blind or visually impaired employees could work remotely or in the office, sometimes through special telephone systems. The 150 or so children who receive agency services that a regular class teacher cannot provide will continue to receive support from Future in Sight teachers and specialists. Occupational therapists, the visually impaired, and social workers provide adult services either remotely or in person, with safety protocols in place.
“The demand is greater than ever before. We’re not shrinking. We’re expanding our services, ”says Morgan. “As challenging as
In many ways, COVID is a way for people to get involved who may not have been to Concord. Now we can reach thousands of customers to place a Zoom call with us. “
Remote working and virtual meetings are likely to become permanent approaches to the way of working.
“I think that will change how and where people work,” says Hinson-Hatz. “I think companies will really look at their positions and say, ‘Suzie is so much more productive at home. Why didn’t we think about that before?’ There are no distractions or distractions that are easy to deal with. “
According to Ritcey, companies “should take the time to tap into a severely underutilized population that can add high value to their business. If you set expectations correctly at the start of the gate, your expectations will be met so easily. “
Hinkle adds, “Everyone deserves a chance. Most of the people we work with take pride in having jobs and being in the community to make money.
“Employers don’t hire these people for charity,” she adds. “You meet a need.”
These articles are shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. More information is available at kollaborativeh.org.
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