Long left out of job market, people with disabilities benefit from COVID teleworking boom
After generations of being overlooked and sidelined in the job market, Americans with disabilities are enjoying an unprecedented employment boom — thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Widespread acceptance of remote working and an overall labor shortage have opened up historic opportunities for some of the nation’s most skilled and underutilized workers.
“I’m proud to be able to go out and earn a living now, especially teleworking, and do it as a blind man,” said Bobby Pellechia, 39, a data analyst in Central Texas who has had three remote jobs since the pandemic began, each time moving up in position and pay.
The question now is whether people with disabilities can hold on to those gains as a recession looms and more employers press their employees to come back to the office.
Experts see a struggle coming with consequences not only for the disabled, but also for the whole U.S. economy. And the resolution may only come through legal battles and a fresh look at the nation’s landmark antidiscrimination law, the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The jobless rate for disabled workers — typically in double digits and 12.3% two years ago — dropped to 5.8% in November. While that’s almost double the rate for all workers ages 16 and over, it represents the lowest rate for people with disabilities since record-keeping began in 2008.
The shift to telework, he noted, has been particularly helpful for people with physical difficulties and mobility limitations. “The ability to get to work via this 10-second commute is to their advantage,” Ameri said.
Yet for all the gains made since the pandemic, disability rights advocates say many capable people with disabilities remain unemployed or underemployed because employers fear they will be too costly or lack adequate services to support their employment. Disabled workers worry that the momentum built will be lost now that the economy is turning down.
Layoffs of all kinds of workers have been increasing of late, hitting many people who had worked from home. And a growing number of companies are instructing their employees to return to the office, at least part time.
So even as experts expect the broad shift to remote work to continue in some form, it’s unclear to what extent companies will expand opportunities for people with disabilities or allow them to retain the option to telework.
After almost three years in which telework has been the norm, lawyers say it may be harder for an employer to justify refusing to let disabled employees work from home.
With a pressing need for workers and new tools like videoconferencing and screen readers readily available, employers who had long resisted telework and other accommodations quickly changed their minds in the face of the pandemic.
But even with the positive experience, employers are unlikely to guarantee that workers will have the right to work from home in all cases.
And even then, employees may have to live with an alternative arrangement other than regular telework, as Joseph Mobley learned.
Mobley, 40, was a patient access supervisor at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., when his multiple sclerosis progressed, causing sudden episodes of fatigue, problems walking and a burning sensation in his eyes and hands. “I was hugging the walls to get to a meeting,” he recalled.
In past years, Mobley had sometimes worked from home, and the staff he supervised mostly worked remotely. Mobley got solid performance reviews.
But when he sought permission in 2018 to telework whenever his condition flared, St. Luke’s denied the request and told him to seek approval on a case-by-case basis. His boss suggested that Mobley use paid time off or federal leave on those days, according to court records.
Mobley quit later that year and sued the hospital.
Last month, an appellate court sided with St. Luke’s, suggesting that its response was a reasonable accommodation and noting that the employer engaged in a good-faith process to address the request, as the law requires.
However, the judges said in their ruling: “By allowing Mobley to consistently work remotely aside from his medical condition, St. Luke’s implicitly demonstrated a belief that he could perform his essential job functions without being in the office all the time.”
Ong, the employment attorney, wasn’t involved in the case, but she said it offered lessons for employers, particularly after COVID-19.
“Before the pandemic, a lot of employers were saying, ‘Hey, remote work for managers, uh-uh — it’s just not doable,’” said Ong. But “if somebody has been doing remote management, and doing it successfully, to then say it’s not reasonable is kind of a dangerous thing to say.”
COVID-19 has also sparked new disputes over what constitutes a qualified disability under the law.
During the pandemic, millions of people stayed home from work because of underlying health conditions that made them more at risk of serious harm from contracting the virus. And a COVID-19 infection resulted in lingering physical and mental health issues for many people.
In a new research paper analyzing the strong job gains for people with disabiilties, Ari Ne’eman and Nicole Maestas of Harvard University found that there’s been an increase of newly disabled employees with trouble remembering and concentrating. Ne’eman said in an interview that they may have acquired the condition during the pandemic, and could possibly be symptoms of long COVID.
Ne’eman, who co-founded the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, said a lot of emerging battles over telework may be avoided if regulators, particularly the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, work with employers to set clear expectations on disability accommodations in light of what’s been learned during the pandemic.
Certainly, he said, “employers should not be able to simply say, ‘My personal taste is that you come into the office.’”
The EEOC has issued updated guidelines reflecting workplace changes during the pandemic. But there are few hard and fast rules, underscoring how each request may differ from job to job and the specific circumstances of the worker and employer.
While the pandemic has awakened more employers to the untapped pool of disabled workers, 3 out of 10 today don’t have a process to provide requested accommodations, according to the Kessler Foundation’s employment and disability survey with the University of New Hampshire.
Many experts say that corporate America’s movement on diversity and inclusion doesn’t regard disability status as being a priority as important as race and gender.