2020 marked 7-year high unemployment rate for people with disabilities

Table of Contents

Dive Brief:

  • Fewer U.S. persons with a disability were employed in 2020 with a total employment rate of 17.9%, down from 19.3% in 2019, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That translated to an unemployment rate of 12.6% for persons with a disability, the highest such mark in seven years.
  • The decline amounts to a 5.3 percentage point increase year over year, compared to a 4.4 percentage point increase year over year for persons without a disability, who experienced an unemployment rate of 7.9% last year, up from 3.5% in 2019. “Data on both groups for 2020 reflect the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and efforts to contain it,” BLS said in its analysis.
  • Persons with a disability were more likely to work in service occupations and occupations involving production, transportation and material moving in 2020 than those without disabilities, BLS noted. Many job categories within these areas experienced heavy losses last year. For example, employment in leisure and hospitality — which represented 8.3% of employed persons with a disability — fell by 8.2 million jobs in the first two months of the pandemic, and the sector remains 3.9 million below February 2020 levels, according to a report last month by BLS.

Dive Insight:

The agency’s data show a clear decline in employment for persons with a disability, though HR industry observers have noted that the pandemic may also have created some positive changes for this category of job seekers.

Accessibility to job opportunities has long been a challenge for individuals with disabilities. However, due to public health measures taken to limit the spread of COVID-19, many employers adopted hiring processes that are mostly or entirely virtual. Moreover, that adoption is expected to continue well into 2021. Combined with other measures to reduce bias in the hiring process, this change could vastly improve accessibility for individuals with disabilities, according to sources who spoke to HR Dive last year.

A similar change has occurred with respect to telework and other flexible work arrangements. The impact of remote work in 2020 could change, for instance, the compliance conversation about whether such arrangements could be considered reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Still, there are steps that employers can take to support workers with disabilities during the pandemic. A 2020 report by the Association of People Supporting Employment First (ASPE) noted that many persons with disabilities work in essential categories of jobs, such as those in grocery stores and healthcare facilities.

“Many of these essential workers regularly rely on supports from job coaches and employment specialists to navigate changes in business practices and job responsibilities,” ASPE said. “These direct support professionals are crucial in ensuring the safety and health of people with disabilities.”

In an opinion piece to HR Dive, consultant Toby Mildon wrote that employers may want to reach out to their employees and listen to their experiences during the pandemic. Among other things, employers can also ensure that technologies adopted in the past year, such as online meeting platforms like Zoom, have accessibility features enabled, Mildon wrote.

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