A Post-COVID Silver Lining Might Mean Opportunity for Workers With Disabilities

Labor force participation for people with disabilities is 3 percentage points ahead of where it stood pre-pandemic
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To many, worker shortages and other pandemic side effects are the subjects of ire, but for those with disabilities, they may spell opportunity.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, amid perhaps the best employment economy in U.S. history, the unemployment rate for workers with disabilities sat above 80 percent. The economic crash that accompanied the pandemic, of course, only made things worse.

Now, however, comes the “Great Resignation,” the post-lockdown era that took hold last summer in which millions of able-bodied Americans quit jobs they didn’t like. It’s a vexation for employers struggling to staff their businesses and customers seeking services — but a big opportunity for many people with disabilities.

By late last year, the Institute on Disability put labor force participation for people with disabilities 3 percentage points ahead of where it stood pre-pandemic, making it the highest rate of employment ever recorded for the population.

Many business owners who had not previously considered employees with disabilities are now willing to offer the necessary accommodations, says Venita King, southeast division director for Michigan Rehabilitation Services, a division of the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity that provides training and employment services to the approximately 1.3 million Michiganders living with disabilities.

Since the pandemic’s onset, MRS has ramped up its “business spotlights” — recruitment sessions in which companies appeal directly to MRS clients. While the organization has always worked with businesses, King says, she and her team have typically been the ones to seek out these collaborations. “Now, we have businesses coming to us, asking to be spotlighted. We’ve taken advantage of that opportunity.” Recent spotlights have included American House, Belle Tire, Cisco, Comerica, and Alta Equipment.

For Rochester-based nonprofit Dutton Farm, which provides workforce development programs and employment assistance for local people with disabilities, the results have been similar. Heading into the pandemic, the organization had 16 clients placed with employers across the region. By the time lockdowns were fully rolled out, that number had dropped to six. Over the past year, however, Dutton has more than bounced back, currently boasting 36 placements.

Chief Programming Officer Lisa Friedrich emphasizes the impact these positions have on the employees, pointing to one of Dutton Farm’s most recent placements. The client, who is over 40, had never worked a paying job until he was placed with a manufacturing company. “It has changed his life,” Friedrich says. “He’s so thrilled to go to work 20 hours a week.” Even those clients who work just two to four hours per week relish the chance to engage with and contribute to their communities. “They also say they love the paycheck — don’t we all?”

The increased need Dutton Farm has seen among local businesses has opened doors not only for current clients but also for the nonprofit at large, which has partnered with several new employers — and expanded into other industries — in the last few months alone.  “Our goal by the end of the year is to have 60 placements,” she says. “It’s a substantial growth, but we believe we can do it.”

Worker shortages aren’t the only pandemic side effect facilitating inclusive employment. Prior to the remote-work boom, many employers refused to consider work-from-home arrangements. Part of its legacy is extending new professional opportunities to people with epilepsy, vision impairments, and other conditions that restrict their ability to commute.

“We’ve seen customers really embrace this,” says King, who believes the popularization of remote work will give people with disabilities access to high-demand, high-paying careers in fields like computer information and technology. 

All this adds up to a surprising silver lining of this devastating pandemic. “We’re viewing the resulting employment landscape in a positive way,” King says. “Certainly, high levels of poverty and discrimination still exist, but quite frankly, I think individuals with disabilities have a lot of opportunities right now.”

This story is from the April 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our digital edition