Remote work has been a boon for people with disabilities. Will employers keep it going?

Work-from-home is here to stay − and it’s been a transformative technology for workers with disabilities, Rutgers University researchers say.

But while that picture may seem rosy, some of the gains could be lost as the labor market softens and companies push workers back to their offices.

“We’ve definitely seen over the past three years, during the pandemic recovery, the employment rate of people with disabilities has gone up faster than the employment rate for people without disabilities and that’s really encouraging,” said Lisa Schur, who along with husband Douglas Kruse directs the school’s Program for Disability Research.

In January 2020, 5.7 million Americans with disabilities were employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number jumped to 7.6 million last month, a 33% increase.

Doug Kruse and Lisa Schur

Technology and a strong job market have boosted employment. But in an Oct. 24 presentation, Kruse and Schur noted it’s still unclear how flexible employers will remain. In response, Rutgers – supported by a $4.3 million federal grant – set up a Rehabilitation Research and Training Center to investigate how better workplace policies can support career advancement for people with disabilities.

In the following interview, the two researchers discuss the potential staying power of remote working, why employment was rising for people with disabilities even before the pandemic and how workers can convince employers to keep telework arrangements in place. This transcript has been edited for space and clarity:

Q: Your findings are fascinating given the current timing. As the pandemic subsides, companies are looking to bring employees back to the office. How will this affect the people who found opportunities working from home?

Kruse: You’re touching on an important aspect. We’ve argued that the pandemic has opened employers’ eyes to the possibilities of remote work and other creative working methods. It’s forced a reevaluation of how work can be accomplished efficiently.

Schur: We haven’t examined this systematically, but it seems that remote work, previously deemed unreasonable by courts as an accommodation, may now be recognized as viable, even with most employees returning to on-site work.

Q: Concerning employment increases for people with disabilities since the pandemic, whom has this benefited? Are we seeing improvements across all types of disabilities?

Kruse: The employment trends for people with disabilities have been very positive in recent years across all the big categories − vision, hearing, cognitive, and mobility impairments.

Schur: Interestingly, we’ve observed employment growth for people with disabilities in both remote and also on-site work. It seems employers’ need for workers has made them more open to hiring people with disabilities.

Kruse: Yes, we’ve published research showing that as labor markets tighten and demand increases, people with disabilities see significant employment improvements. This is true for both on-site and telework positions. However, a large portion — 75% of the new jobs for people with disabilities in tighter markets — were in remote work.

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Q: Considering the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes, which aim to cool the job market, how do you think this will affect employment for people with disabilities?

Kruse: While it’s essential to manage inflation, so far, we’ve seen strong employment growth even as inflation rates decrease.

Schur: I don’t think we are ever going back to the way it was before the pandemic.

Kruse: You may have seen some of the work by Nick Bloom. He actually did an Op-Ed in the New York Times about a week and a half ago. He’s a Stanford economist, one of the top experts in telework. He says that at the height of the pandemic, about 60% of the work hours were being done at home. Now it’s down to 31% but it doesn’t seem to be going much lower. He thinks telework is here to stay and we’re going to see 25 to 30% of work hours being done at home as opposed to before the pandemic when he estimates about 6% of work hours were done at home. So he thinks it’s a long-term shift.

Q: Has the shift to remote work, which includes remote job interviews, reduced bias against people with disabilities? Are employers more open to hiring people with disabilities now that they see the remote work can be done effectively?

Kruse: We don’t have direct data on that, but it’s a plausible hypothesis. Generally, in a tight labor market, employers’ biases are less pronounced because employers are hungry for workers. And that’s why the employment rate of African American people tends to be especially cyclical. When the unemployment rate is high, employers can be very choosy and they choose not to hire African Americans.

It’s the same thing with people with disabilities. If the unemployment rate is high, employers are free to indulge their bias or their prejudice and not hire people with disabilities. Whereas when the unemployment rate is low, employers need to hire people, they’re hungry for workers. So their bias is less of a factor.

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Kruse: Interestingly, the trend of increasing employment rates among people with disabilities, which has been really encouraging, was present even before the pandemic. Historically, employment rates for people with disabilities were quite stagnant, but from about 2015 up until the pandemic, we saw a notable improvement. This was a departure from the trends we’d seen in people without disabilities, and it’s likely that the tight labor market played a significant role in this positive change.

People have developed a taste for remote work, which seems to be persisting. This shift has a generally positive impact, particularly for individuals with disabilities. Employers have been forced to reconsider job structures, making them potentially more accommodating for people with disabilities.

Schur: The shift from a strict 9-to-5, on-site work requirement to a focus on ‘is the work done, regardless of when or how often breaks are taken?’ has provided greater flexibility that benefits everyone, including those with disabilities. [Employers now say,] ‘We don’t care as much when you do the work. We just need the product at the end.’ And so that greater flexibility can really help people, not just people with mobility impairments, but people who just for whatever reason would need to take more breaks or be in a quieter environment. It benefits a whole lot of people.

Q: And yet your work shows people with disabilities held fewer work from home jobs during the pandemic than people without disabilities?

Schur: Some jobs aren’t suited for telework. Some, like food prep, aren’t easily adaptable to remote work, but white-collar roles, management, professional jobs, and even computer programming or teaching can be done remotely. Conversely, it’s harder for physical jobs like janitorial work or landscaping.

Q: Also counterintuitively, people with disabilities hold more of these blue-collar jobs than more accessible white-collar office jobs.

Kruse: Yes, that’s correct. People with disabilities are more likely to be in blue-collar and service jobs, which are less amenable to telework. Before the pandemic, only 30% of people with disabilities were in occupations amenable to telework, compared to 40% of people without disabilities.

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Q: What policies should employers look at to make this fair for everyone now as people are returning to the office?

Kruse: The best policies for people with disabilities are those that focus on individual needs. Bureaucratic structures are less effective than treating each person as an individual. An IBM executive once said they try to accommodate everyone, disability or not, which helps avoid jealousy and resentment. The pandemic has encouraged employers to think creatively about job tasks and accommodations, which is beneficial for everyone.

Q: What practical advice can you offer job seekers from what you’ve learned?

Kruse: Job seekers can emphasize their ability to be productive when teleworking. If I were out there looking for a job where I could telework, that’s what I would tell employers: I can work very effectively at home without distractions. I can be in contact with you whenever you want and check in with you and you can monitor my work. One benefit from the worker’s perspective can actually be a real benefit for the employer too: A couple of studies indicated productivity was higher at home than for on-site work.

Gene Myers covers disability and mental health for and the USA TODAY Network. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.


Twitter: @myersgene 

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