COVID-19 and the Workforce: Impacts on Workers with Disabilities

By Rachel Wright

Unemployment and Absence from Work

As the coronavirus pandemic temporarily curtailed many businesses’ in-person operations, layoffs and furloughs were quick to follow. Although the permanency of these layoffs is still unclear, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that job losses throughout the pandemic culminated in an unemployment rate of nearly 14.7% by the end of April. Of the positions lost, approximately 950,000 were previously held by workers with disabilities, putting the unemployment rate among these workers at 20%[1].

Among individuals who have been able to remain at work, overallabsences have never been higher. A recent study conducted by the Kessler Foundation discovered that 13.4% of working-age employees with disabilities were absent in the April 2020 reference week compared to 5.5%, respectively, in 2018. The direct causes of absence are unknown but are thought to be attributed to:

  • Worker’s own illness
  • Family illness
  • Limited service of public transportation
  • Difficulty coordinating with personal care assistance services
  • Scarcity of personal protective equipment

These disruptions in employment and employment-related supports may not only impact one’s economic self-sufficiency but also their ability to fully participate in society and live independently[2]. As such, it is important for community and employment support providers to be able to assist persons with disabilities to remain at work, adapt to changing work environments and potentially find new jobs. The ability of these providers to do so, however, has become strained given government orders and the budget constraints brought about by the current economic downturn.

Community and Employment Support Providers

survey conducted in April by the American Network of Community Options and Resources (ANCOR) revealed the extent of the constraints recently experienced by community and employment service providers. Of the most affected, community providers serving individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities reported that 31% of supported employment service lines and 19% of transportation services had closed due to government orders regarding COVID-19.

The Association of People Supporting Employment First has experienced similar service reductions. According to Julie Christensen, director of policy and advocacy, “We’re seeing providers laying off 60% to 75% of direct support professionals because of cash flow concerns.” As a result, workers with disabilities may not receive the support necessary to arrive at work, adapt to changing work environments and/or seek out new employment opportunities.

Formerly incarcerated individuals with disabilities may be among those disproportionately impacted. For example, in 2019 the Financial Access Inclusion and Resources (FAIR) program was launched in Louisiana to improve employment outcomes and financial security of formerly incarcerated individuals with disabilities. By March 2020, 61% of enrollees were actively participating and 48% had found employment. With the spread of COVID-19, however, FAIR has been forced to institute measures leading to layoffs that have complicated the provision of their community services.

Innovative State Initiatives and Strategies

Despite these economic realities, state vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies have successfully collaborated with both private and public sector agencies to establish initiatives aimed at connecting workers with disabilities to employment opportunities.

In Michigan, the Rehabilitation Services and Bureau of Services for Blind Persons has continued to serve persons with disabilities through partnering with agencies serving both workers and employers. In recent months, these agencies have jointly planned state-sponsored job fairs for essential businesses with urgent hiring needs.

Michigan VR has also sought to ensure that technology solutions at these events are accessible to all job seekers. Employers’ awareness of the VR-specific Talent Acquisition Portal (TAP) has been a particular focus among event organizers. Serving both workers and employers, TAP is a, “national talent pool of individuals with disabilities looking for employment and a job posting platform for businesses looking to hire.” Through utilizing TAP, jobseekers can more effectively connect with potential employers while receiving continued support from VR counselors.

Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities (OOD) has similarly responded to changing public needs throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Utilizing a “dual-customer” approach to workforce development, OOD’s business relations specialists have reached out to more than 500 employer partners to identify urgent staffing needs. An Urgent Jobs List was then created based on these needs, acting as a centralized resource for job openings with essential businesses. The list provides direct links to a company’s application portal as well as weekly updates from employers.

As a strategy to ensure those currently employed can remain working safely, state legislators have also sought to encourage telework policies even after stay at home orders have been lifted. For example, despite the expiration of Washington’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy proclamation, Gov. Jay Inslee continues to encourage state agencies to prioritize telework arrangements. Previously implemented state telework or pilot programs for state agency employees will be important now more than ever.

Enhanced focus on these policies poses a substantial benefit to workers with disabilities. For those needing long-term telework arrangements, this focus may help normalize work-from-home arrangements for those requesting such accommodations due to their disability. Furthermore, individuals with disabilities who have long worked from home may become viewed as more competitive applicants due to this background.

Additional Resources

As the current public health crisis progresses, innovative and collaborative strategies will continue to be necessary in order to best serve workers with disabilities. To learn more about the strategies of VR agencies during this time, stay up to date with the Office of Education and Rehabilitative Services Blog as well as The Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation’s website. 

CSG’s Stay-At-Work/ Return-to-Work Toolkit is a resource designed to help state officials increase the employment retention and labor force participation of individuals who acquire and/or are at risk of developing work disabilities, whether on-the-job or off-the-job. To learn more about how states can improve their disability employment policies read CSG’s Work Matters: A Framework for States on Workforce Development for People with Disabilities and visit seed.csg.org.

The Council of State Governments’ policy briefs COVID-19 and Impacts on Individuals with Disabilities and COVID-19 Federal Disability-Specific and Other Related Guidance seek to equip state officials with the information necessary to ensure state and local policy aligns with civil rights laws and other disability-related policies. To read these briefs, visit seed.csg.org/blog.

For those seeking to receive assistance in developing effective and inclusive workforce policies during COVID-19, contact our Disability Employment Policy Team, or email dklimkina@csg.org.


[1] To access employment figures for May 2020, visit the Kessler Foundation’s nTIDE May 2020 Jobs Report.

[2] Economic self-sufficiency, full participation and independent living are central precepts and goals outlined in the 2016 publication, Work Matters: A Framework for States on Workforce Development for People with Disabilities.

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