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Education and Employment

Persons with disabilities making headway in labor market’s ‘new normal’

A female freelancer in a wheelchair, works remotely from home

Unemployment moved downward for people with disabilities after stalling in October, according to National Trends in Disability Employment (nTIDE) COVID Update. For the first time, their unemployment levels dipped below pre-pandemic lows, in contrast with their peers without disabilities.

In April of 2020, restrictions on economic activity in the U.S. due to the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated an unprecedented rise in furloughs and people looking for work, prompting the addition of this mid-month nTIDE COVID Update. The mid-month nTIDE follows two key unemployment indicators – furloughs, or temporary layoffs, and the number of people looking for work, comparing trends for people with and without disabilities.

November’s dip in unemployment occurred in the context of rises in the employment-to-population ratio and labor force participation rate. “These are signs that some people with disabilities are returning to the labor market,” said Andrew Houtenville, PhD, professor of economics at the University of Hampshire (UNH) and research director of the UNH Institute on Disability. “They are making headway despite the ‘new normal’ of today’s labor market.”

Noting a rise in furloughs from 2 to 4 percent in November, Dr. Houtenville speculated that the fall surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the delta variant may have triggered temporary layoffs for some workers. “The rapid spread of the new omicron variant is a concern,” he said. “If the rise in infections and hospitalizations hinders economic recovery, we may see that reflected in the job numbers.”

Disability employment expert John O’Neill, PhD, reported progress by JobPathNYC, a New York City-based nonprofit that provides customized employment services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “By early December, more than 85 percent of JobPath’s clients were back at work,” reported Dr. O’Neill, director of the Center for Employment and Disability Research at Kessler Foundation and co-author of nTIDE. “They either returned to their previous jobs or started new ones with the help of JobPath’s staff of job developers.”

Optimism about further progress is being tempered by the surge in COVID-19 infections in New York. “Holding on to these gains will depend on how measures to contain the pandemic affect businesses and employment,” Dr. O’Neill predicted. “The good news is that we now have more in the way of public health resources and can apply the lessons learned earlier in the pandemic to keep businesses open and people on the job.”

This COVID Update is an extra edition of National Trends in Disability Employment (nTIDE), a joint project of Kessler Foundation and the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability, co-authored by Dr. Houtenville and John O’Neill, PhD, of Kessler Foundation. The nTIDE team closely monitors the job numbers, issuing semi-monthly nTIDE reports, as the labor market continues to reflect the many challenges of the pandemic.

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