COVID-19 Likely Resulted in 1.2 Million More Disabled People by the End of 2021—Workplaces and Policy Will Need to Adapt
Authors’ notes: The disability community is rapidly evolving to using identity-first language in place of person-first language. This is because it views disability as being a core component of identity, much like race and gender. Some members of the community, such as people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, prefer person-first language. In this report, the terms are used interchangeably.
Disability policy experts have long warned that the COVID-19 pandemic would likely be a mass disabling event. New analysis of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) data on the civilian noninstitutional population aged 16 years and over shows that, in 2021, 1.2 million* more people were identified as having a disability than were in 2020. Within the portion of that population participating in the labor force, there were 496,000 more people with a disability.
Meanwhile, in contrast, the number of nondisabled people in the civilian noninstitutional population decreased by 49,000 people and the number of people without a disability in the labor force decreased by 34,000 people.** An increase in those with a disability in the population and the labor market makes it imperative that workplaces and policymakers take into consideration the needs of disabled people. Workplaces must accommodate the needs of disabled workers by decreasing the barriers that make it difficult for them to apply, obtain, and maintain employment. In addition, it will be crucial for labor market analysts and policymakers to understand the economy through the lens of disabled people’s experiences.
The pandemic has likely increased the number of disabled people in the labor force
In the early months of the pandemic, the number of people in the labor force declined significantly among most demographic groups. For those with a disability, declines in the labor force were larger—as a percentage change—compared to those without a disability. This is likely related to significant employment declines in industries such as retail trade and leisure and hospitality. Disabled workers are overrepresented in these low-wage and in-person occupations that were particularly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, unemployment rates amongst disabled workers reached a high of 18.9 percent in April 2020, higher than the rate among nondisabled workers of 14.3 percent.
But after the initial shocks of the early 2020 labor market, the population with a disability and the number of people with a disability in the labor force increased significantly over the course of 2021. (see Figure 1) Of the 1.2 million additional people with a disability counted in the civilian noninstitutional population, 65 percent*** are under the age of 65. This is a clear indication that the increase in those with a disability is not purely the consequences of an ageing society. In contrast, the population without a disability stayed nearly flat.
While labor force gains among workers with a disability are important—as many people with disabilities have employment goals—there remains a clear and persistent labor force participation gap by disability status. In 2021, 21 percent of people with a disability participated in the labor force, compared to 67 percent of people without a disability—a disparity relatively unchanged since 2009. While a tight overall labor market may explain some of the increase in employment opportunities for those with a disability, the prevalence and long consequences of COVID-19 seem to be the most likely explanation for the increase in the number of people with a disability in the population.
The United States is not accurately tracking the duration of COVID-19 symptoms, and for many, even access to accurate testing is still limited. Advocates and members of Congress have called for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to collect and release disaggregated data to better understand the prevalence rates. However, initial research suggests that one-fourth of nonhospitalized COVID-19 patients may continue to experience symptoms for months (known as “long COVID”). This is in addition to hospitalized patients, who may also experience long symptomatic periods. In the United Kingdom, where testing and tracking of symptoms are more thorough, 64 percent of people with long COVID reported that their symptoms adversely affected their day-to-day activities. Nineteen percent reported that those activities had been “limited a lot.” Even with limitations on the U.S. health care system’s diagnosis of long COVID, patterns similar to those in the United Kingdom are likely affecting the U.S. population. The increase in disabled participants in the labor force and in the survey population described in this column likely demonstrates that many people are experiencing COVID and long COVID symptoms that have enough of an impact of their daily lives that they are now identified as disabled.
Of people with a disability participated in the labor force in 2021
Of people without a disability participated in the labor force in 2021
COVID-19 mitigation strategies such as paid sick and caregiving leave and mandated masks and vaccination for workplaces are unavailable to millions of workers. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, millions more could be infected. The dramatic increase in the number of people with a disability in the BLS survey population and the labor force demonstrates that workplaces will need to adapt to the new needs of employees. In addition, an understanding of the ways in which disability affects employment will become more important than ever in analyses of the U.S. labor market.
Workplaces have legal obligations to meet the needs of disabled workers, but more outreach is needed
The barriers to entering and remaining in the workforce are complex for disabled people: Discrimination in hiring; a lack of reasonable accommodations despite being legally required; difficulty proving discrimination; and the absence of health insurance benefits are only part of the story. People with disabilities may face additional transportation or housing hurdles that keep them from their employment goals. Employment can also be counter-productive to their goal of economic stability or health care needs: Employers can legally pay workers with disabilities far below the minimum wage and mandated wage standards for contract workers, and access to some federal social safety net programs—including Medicaid—is cut off when assets or earned income are too high. People who are disabled and are also members of another marginalized group—such as disabled LGBTQI+ people—often bear the brunt of barriers to economic security.
President Joe Biden’s administration released a joint guidance by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) emphasizing that long COVID could be counted as a disability and thus protected under numerous civil rights laws. It is imperative that workplaces accommodate newly disabled workers to comply with civil rights laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.
It is imperative that workplaces accommodate newly disabled workers to comply with civil rights laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But much stands in the way of workers getting those accommodations: Workers may not know that they are eligible for reasonable accommodations in the first place, and they may have difficulty proving disability or accommodation needs due to spotty documentation of past COVID-19 illness or symptoms resultant from lack of availability of COVID-19 testing and/or knowledgeable medical providers. In addition, stigma and perceived financial or logistical barriers may stand in the way of requesting and receiving accommodations for what many might perceive as a temporary disability. The Department of Labor (DOL) provided brief initial guidance to workers who need accommodation for long COVID in summer 2021, but with millions of people experiencing COVID-19 since then and the advancement of research, significantly more outreach, education, and enforcement is needed.
Labor market policy must take into account the dramatic increase in the disabled population
Ensuring that disabled people with employment goals have access to good, well-paying employment with health insurance benefits was already urgent. If a greater proportion of the workforce is disabled, doing so only has greater positive ramifications for the overall economy.
The federal government has a long list of policy options to improve the lives of people and workers with disabilities, including eliminating asset limits and the subminimum wage as well as providing universal access to paid leave to care for oneself or others. Improved data collection on the symptoms and duration of long COVID, equity-centered interventions, best practices and treatment approaches, and bans on coverage limits for long COVID will be critical over the next few months and years. Improving vocational rehabilitation services by decreasing caseloads and increasing funding for home and community-based services (HCBS)—which can provide job coaching and other vocational supports—may help individuals access necessary resources to look for, obtain, and maintain employment. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act may also provide an opportunity for the federal government to expand access to construction jobs to disabled workers. Just as urgent is the continued commitment to ending the pandemic—crucial both for the health of people who have disabilities and for preventing long COVID symptoms for millions of others.
The BLS survey population is just one indication of the permanent impact COVID-19 will have on lives and policy. Future labor market analysis must consider the growth of the disabled community, especially when assessing the overall employment situation. If unemployment falls dramatically for nondisabled workers but remains elevated for disabled workers, that will be an insufficient recovery, and more interventions will be needed to get those with employment goals into the labor market and create a more equitable economy.
* The authors calculated this figure by taking the difference in the average value of those in the civilian noninstitutional population in January 2020 to December 2020, and January 2021 to December 2021. Original data is available at: https://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNU00074597.
** The authors calculated this figure by taking the difference in the average value of those in the civilian noninstitutional population in January 2020 to December 2020, and January 2021 to December 2021. Original data is available at: https://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNU00074593
*** The authors calculated this figure using data from: Sarah Flood, Miriam King, Renae Rodgers, Steven Ruggles, J. Robert Warren, and Michael Westberry. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, Current Population Survey: Version 9.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS, 2021. See: https://doi.org/10.18128/D030.V9.0.
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