Before the coronavirus pandemic, Evelyn Ramundo was a secretary at a group home in New Jersey that is run by a nonprofit focused on housing and employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Ramundo said she loved her job, where she’s worked for 14 years: “I’m very close with the co-workers.”
But then coronavirus hit the United States. Ramundo said she has been unable to go back to work since about February, and not knowing when she will be able to return and not getting to help people in the group home is frustrating. “I miss everybody,” she said.
“I want to go back to work and make money and not be around the house as much.”
Ramundo, who is also the president of the advisory board of the New Jersey Statewide Self-Advocacy Network, which is comprised of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said her days look different now. She lives in a supervised apartment in a group home. She said her days consist of waking up, watching TV and not doing much of anything. She can have family members visit in the backyard, but she can’t go anywhere with them or invite them inside.
“It gets boring looking at the four walls in your house,” she said.
Ramundo is one of the growing number of professionals with disabilities who are disproportionately losing their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. From February to June, the total number of people with disabilities working in America dropped from 5,918,000 to 5,201,000, a loss of 12.1%, according to the Bureau of Labor. That’s compared to a 9.5% drop in employment for people without disabilities.
About one in five adults in the U.S. has a disability. The 1990 Americans With Disability Act, which prohibits job discrimination based on disability, turns 30 years old this month. But there is still much work left to do until the ADA’s goals of “equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency goals” are fulfilled in the workplace.
Employment biases against people with disabilities existed before the pandemic. They are still happening now.
Leslie Shaul is an employment consultant with Shares, Inc., a nonprofit that works with the state of Indiana’s vocational rehabilitation program to support the employment of people with disabilities. Since the pandemic hit, Shaul has trained clients how to do phone and virtual interviews, address COVID-19 dangers on the job, and discover their “super power,” as she calls it, to find the right vocation for them. Shaul said she has noticed employers are slower to bring back her clients compared to other employees, and that her clients in food service and health care are losing opportunities.
“They have been hit hard. They tend to have underlying health conditions in the first place, and working in an ‘essential’ capacity has made it hard for them to return to work until the risks of spread are lowered,” she said. “Jobs that were secured pre-COVID have evaporated.“
For her clients who are still searching for work, or have had to switch jobs, not being able to work is a loss on many levels. “They lost their social engagement with others. They lost their income. They also lost their mentorships, their positive influence to keep them motivated,” Shaul said. “Many of them were active in other activities, such as Special Olympics and gatherings. They’ve lost those.”
“They say they can’t discriminate, but you know it’s happening because they don’t call you back.”
Melisa Davis, a Carthage, Indiana-based job seeker who is one of Shaul’s clients, said she is concerned about being potentially exposed to COVID-19 because of her disability, and is upfront with potential employers when she interviews for jobs. Davis said she has not gotten callbacks after disclosing her concern.
“I think it’s because I told them I have asthma,” she said, adding that, “They say they can’t discriminate, but you know it’s happening because they don’t call you back.”
Davis, 54, is a certified medical assistant and medical office assistant who wants to stay in her field, but the coronavirus pandemic is changing her plans. She is now working with Shaul to expand her job hunt to call center roles or get training to work in medical billing.
Long before the pandemic hit, workers with disabilities already faced stigma and discrimination at every stage of employment. People who mention a disability on their résumé and cover letter are more likely to not get a call back, and once they get a job, they may still have to deal with earning less than peers and with negative biases from co-workers who misjudge, underestimate or avoid them. During economic downturns, workers with disabilities are especially vulnerable to layoffs: Research found that during a six-year time period including the 2008-10 recession, men and women with disabilities were 75% and 89% more likely to involuntarily lose their jobs, respectively, than men and women without disabilities.
“When the labor market is really tight, employers can’t afford to discriminate, because they’ve got to get those workers in there,” said Douglas Kruse, a co-author of that layoff research and co-director of Rutgers University’s Program for Disability Research with Lisa Schur. “Whereas when there’s recessions, then employers can be choosy about whom they pick and that’s a time when discrimination can come into play.”
Kruse and Schur noted that living with a disability can make employment precarious. “You may find you’ve got the right job where there’s good accommodations and so forth, but then something like COVID hits or some other issue comes up with co-workers, and you’re out of there,” Kruse said.
The biggest employment barrier for workers with disabilities, both before the pandemic and now, is a lack of awareness and the prevailing societal attitudes around how work should get done, said Kathy Martinez, former assistant secretary of the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy and senior vice president of Disability Market Segment & Strategy for Wells Fargo.
For example, people with disabilities have long argued for the ability to work from home. It wasn’t until a pandemic affected everyone that this type of flexibility became mainstreamed. “Previously, there was a common belief that employees need to be in the same physical location to collaborate and think creatively,” said Martinez. “For years, the disability community has advocated working from home as an accommodation, which companies often refused.”
Martinez, who is blind, has faced some of these limiting attitudes from employers herself. “In past jobs, I’ve been denied opportunities for advancement because employers didn’t think I could travel on my own, present in front of audiences and be a productive employee on large-scale initiatives,” she said. “Today, at Wells Fargo, I lead enterprise-wide disability and accessibility strategy that includes these skills.“
For workers with disabilities who remain on the job, there can be new challenges due to COVID-19.
Matt Dacey is a Kroger supermarket employee in Lexington, Kentucky. Because Dacey belongs to the United Food and Commercial Workers union, he said he is not concerned about losing his job or being demoted during the pandemic. But the wearing of masks has presented new challenges. Dacey, who is hearing-impaired, relies on reading lips to fill in the blanks during a conversation.
“With most people wearing masks, I no longer have the ability to read lips and find myself lost during almost every conversation,” Dacey said. “There is noise all around me, but none of it makes any sense, and the extra effort required to try to make sense of everything is mentally exhausting.”
The social aspect of his job is now missing. Dacey is responsible for scheduling his entire department, and he now schedules himself to perform more isolated tasks that don’t require human interaction ― tasks he would normally have delegated to others.
“My favorite thing about my job, those everyday chats with regular customers about mundane things like the weather or baseball, has largely vanished,” he said.