The "Great Resignation" could be a boon for disabled workers

by Marissa Wagner Mery | @marisswagner | University of Texas
Friday, 21 January 2022 14:30 GMT

Stefan Henry exits the subway and heads home after the 2018 Disability Pride Parade in New York, U.S., July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Nolan Ryan Trowe

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As employers offer wage increases, paid parental leave, and other improved benefits to lure talent, they should also offer better accommodation for those with medical and physical needs.

Marissa Wagner Mery is a critical care physician, anesthesiologist, assistant professor at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin and Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

If you’re looking for a silver lining as we start yet another year shadowed by COVID, try this: For the first time in decades, employees are effectively demanding that employers recognize their value. The pandemic and the “Great Resignation” have led to the first significant increases in living wages that lower-income workers have seen in decades.

As a doctor who works with patients trying to re-enter the workforce, I’m even more excited about how this inflection point could improve the working lives of medically complex and disabled individuals.

To be clear, the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled populations remains huge. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 29% of individuals aged 16-64 with a disability were employed in 2020 compared with 70% without a disability. Disparities in employment persist at every education level, and jobless rates for disabled Asian, Hispanic, and Black individuals were higher than for Whites.

COVID has the potential to change this by changing how we think about disability. The pandemic has illuminated the sheer number of people living with debilitating but invisible disabilities. It has also highlighted an important reality – the majority of complex medical conditions and disabilities are acquired in adulthood. COVID has upended workplaces norms regarding location and flexibility. Most people think we know disability when we see it, but in fact by the time we reach 65, 40% of us will be living with a disability, and more of us will have experienced periods of temporary disability related to injuries, pregnancy, or cancer treatment. COVID is encouraging us to see and share these experiences rather than hide them. For example, after each COVID wave, hundreds of thousands of survivors, from Ivy League medical school professors to teenagers, many of whom had had only mild symptoms initially, developed symptoms that included severe fatigue, depression, dizziness, and cognitive deficits—all “invisible” disabilities that have been too easy to ignore.

No longer. Widespread experiences with Long COVID have forced us to recognize how these symptoms impact an individual’s ability to work. In fact, the federal government recently announced that Long COVID could be considered a covered disability if it “substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

COVID’s sudden onset also puts to rest another misconception about disability – that it is something we are born with. In fact, 83% of disabilities develop as we age, and they increase as we get older. The average age of acquiring a disability is 53, within most individuals’ peak earning years.

Again, a disability that impacts work may not be one we can see with the naked eye. An Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator recently told me that diseases as common as kidney disease and diabetes—which affects almost 18% of adults aged 45–64—are frequent reasons for requesting workplace accommodation and, depending on their severity, can cause people to stop working altogether. Now, with a recent record-breaking 10 million-plus jobs open in the U.S, employers are offering wage increases, paid parental leave, and other improved benefits. They can also offer better accommodation for those with medical and physical needs. Two common accommodation requests are flexible hours and remote work. Staggered shifts and intermittent work periods were required to navigate COVID-related office restrictions and remote schooling, and they should be maintained even though children have returned to the classroom.

And if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that remote work is possible for most fields. Critical care physicians located in Australia can co-manage patients in Atlanta, surgeons can operate on patients located on another continent, and Swedish miners drill thousands of feet underground from an office chair.

To be sure, these situations are not commonplace or widespread. And many available jobs are in service-related and hospitality industries that are less flexible. But if innovation can enable global surgery, it can surely support components of restaurant management. Even before COVID, some companies were working to attract and retain workers with disabilities. For example, Microsoft created a specific hiring program in 2015 to attract individuals with autism, tailoring its interview and onboarding processes to address challenges faced by neurodiverse individuals. Dell Technologies launched a People with Disabilities Global Inclusion Project in Brazil, where 20% of its workforce was disabled. It included use of an exoskeleton to support assembly line workers with lower extremity deficits and augmented reality systems to teach those with hearing loss.

COVID has inspired a lot of discussions around the “future of work.” Much of it has been focused on location and remote capabilities for the most privileged of us. But its true benefit may be in leveling the playing for those who have long been left out of these conversations.