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Social determinants of work
Research Summary

Creating Pathways to Remote Work Opportunities for Workers with Disabilities

Oluwasekemi OdumosuLast updated on May 14, 2024
Source: Disability and Health Journal Title: Telework during the pandemic: Patterns, challenges, and opportunities for people with disabilities Author(s): Mason Ameri, Douglas Kruse, So Ri Park, Yana Rodgers, Lisa Schur Original Publication Date: April 2023 Read Full Research Article

During the COVID-19 pandemic recovery, employment rates among US workers with disabilities reached historic highs. Much of the employment growth for these workers occurred in jobs that could be done remotely, including roles in finance, law, and education. People with disabilities, however, are still more likely than nondisabled workers to be employed in occupations requiring in-person presence, such as food preparation and service, groundskeeping and maintenance, and roles in production, transportation, and material handling. The acceleration of remote work created new opportunities for workers with disabilities, including some who may not have been able to work at all without such arrangements.

Remote work offers flexibility that is highly valued by employees, and it is an especially valuable accommodation for disabled workers who may have conditions that can flare up unpredictably, require frequent medical attention, or limit mobility—any one of which can make commuting and on-site work difficult or expensive. The increase in on-site work participation by disabled workers in the wake of the pandemic may be at risk if employers scale back remote and flexible work arrangements.

In the study highlighted here, business school professor Mason Ameri and his colleagues at Rutgers University explore the impact of remote work on disabled workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The analysis is based on the annual US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data collected in 2019 and 2020, and its Current Population Survey data collected from May 2020 to April 2022. Both datasets allow the authors to define a worker’s disability status using a series of questions regarding respondents’ difficulties with daily activities. The annual ACS data allow the authors to examine the increase in remote work at the onset of the pandemic for workers with and without disabilities to assess whether and how changes in remote work patterns differed based on disability status. The monthly CPS data allow the authors to examine how remote work due to pandemic-era policies and practices evolved during the two years after the initial pandemic shock to the labor market, and whether and how those changes differentially shaped employment for workers with disabilities and compared to those without.

The results of their analysis imply a set of opportunities for policymakers, workforce development practitioners, and employers to build on the momentum for labor market inclusion and upward mobility for disabled workers created by the pandemic-era shift to remote work arrangements.

Key findings 

  • Remote work arrangements surged between 2019 and 2020, but the annual increase was smaller for workers with disabilities than it was for those without. While workers with disabilities were more likely than those without disabilities to work remotely before the pandemic, their annual average in 2020 increased by only 7.7 percentage points compared to a 10.3 percentage point increase for people without disabilities. In May 2020, the remote work participation gap between remote work among disabled and nondisabled workers was 10.3 percentage points (25.8 percent of employed people with a disability as compared to 36.1 percent of those without a disability).
  • Due to these differential rates of growth in pandemic-drive remote work, workers with disabilities were less likely than nondisabled workers to be working remotely from 2020 to 2022. The gap narrowed later in the pandemic, and as of April 2022, 6.5 percent of workers with disabilities were working remotely due to the pandemic, as compared to 7.9 percent of workers without disabilities.
  • Within nearly all occupations, including in those most suitable to remote work arrangements, workers with disabilities experienced slower growth rates in remote work than workers without disabilities. The increase in remote work for disabled workers in management-, finance-, and computer-based occupations between 2019 and 2020 was more than 5 percentage points less than among their nondisabled counterparts. The one exception to this pattern was for administrative support jobs: administrative support workers with disabilities had a 1.5 percentage point stronger increase in working remotely in 2020 than those without disabilities.
  • Disabled workers with bachelor’s and graduate degrees had a smaller increase in working remotely than similarly credentialed workers without disabilities. Workers with disabilities holding these degrees had 2.7 percentage point and 5.1 percentage point smaller increases, respectively, in remote work compared to college-educated workers without disabilities.
  • Tight labor markets in the pandemic recovery have favored people with disabilities obtaining remote jobs. In states where the unemployment rate came down more sharply, 51.8 percent of the new jobs for people with disabilities were remote, compared to 30.5 percent of the new jobs for people without disabilities.

Policy and practice implications 

The authors identified the following implications for policy and/or practice:

  • Increase funding for programs connecting workers with disabilities to remote-friendly jobs. The Vocational Rehabilitation system, along with various federal and state policies, provides personalized support to help disabled workers obtain and retain jobs. These services include individualized rehabilitation plans, counseling, training, and job placement assistance—together offering a comprehensive approach to employment support. Because a tight labor market potentially reduces the need for some of these policies, directing more funding toward vocational rehabilitation and similar programs may help ensure that workers with disabilities benefit from future remote work opportunities. This approach can support long-term employment stability and reduce disparities in the workforce for people with disabilities.

WorkRise has identified the following implications for policy and/or practice:

  • Foster workplace equity through inclusive business practices. Businesses could promote opportunity for disabled workers by offering employees more autonomy, including the option for remote work, where feasible. A recent study of employees in a large technology firm found that hybrid work arrangements improved employee satisfaction and reduced attrition by 33 percent. Employers can ensure that remote workers receive fair pay, equal opportunities for promotions and are not overlooked due to remote work status. Relaxing degree requirements and focusing on skills-based hiring, along with inclusive recruitment and hiring processes, could help integrate more workers with disabilities into higher-paying remote-work-eligible roles that offer promising pathways to advancement.
  • Strengthen federal antidiscrimination enforcement agencies. Policymakers could allocate more resources to federal enforcement agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to ensure the effective enforcement of antidiscrimination policies and protect disabled workers’ health and safety. Additionally, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could amend its regulations to explicitly recognize remote work as a reasonable accommodation, which can only be denied if the employer can demonstrate that essential job functions cannot be performed remotely. Employers may retain the right to decide who to hire and how to organize work, but these decisions should be based on factual job requirements rather than on a generalized perception of duties.
  • Expand educational opportunities for disabled workers. To bridge the education and employment gaps for workers with disabilities, it’s crucial to expand access to educational programs that lead to remote work-friendly careers in conjunction with job-matching services like the Vocational Rehabilitation system. This suggests the need for longer-term structural changes that reduce the concentration of disabled workers in low-wage blue-collar and service jobs, which are less conducive to remote work. Expanding access to higher education, particularly community colleges, through scholarships or federal grants can help people with disabilities earn degrees and improve their employment outcomes. Part of this funding could go toward training staff to mitigate bias and stigma against disability and assisting disabled students register for and receive accommodations they may need to be successful.

The pandemic brought about the necessity of work-from-home options and inadvertently increased employment opportunities for disabled workers, which helped increase the overall employment rate to an all-time high as of 2023. The increased remote work participation was not limited to workers with disabilities, and their progress was outpaced by workers without disabilities. This gap in access to remote work arrangements is partially explained by occupational differences between workers with disabilities and those without, exposing opportunities to create more equitable labor market outcomes by ensuring disabled workers can access remote work arrangements. 

Policy supporting antidiscrimination and practitioners expanding career and technical education can help upskill workers with disabilities for remote-friendly jobs. Employers can contribute to equity for disabled workers through inclusive hiring practices and offering remote work arrangements. These strategies working in tandem at various stages of the employment life cycle may help to bridge the employment gaps for workers with disabilities in white-collar jobs and ensure that gains in employment rates for disabled workers made during the pandemic can be sustained and expanded, promoting a more inclusive labor market for all.

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