Author’s note: The disability community is rapidly evolving to use 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 column, the terms are used interchangeably.
In November 2022, almost 48,000 workers in the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, which also represents student teacher assistants throughout the United States, went on strike at schools across the University of California system. These workers, including student teaching assistants and researchers, demanded pay raises and better working conditions, and in particular sought greater accessibility for workers with disabilities than schools provided. Ultimately, they secured in their contract a provision for accommodating disabled workers to help them do their jobs.
Some disabled people may require accommodations, or adjustments to working conditions, from employers to ensure they have equal access to employment opportunities and can perform their jobs to the same extent as workers without disabilities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which collects and publishes data on the disabled workforce, includes a range of “physical, mental, or emotional” conditions in its questions used to identify disabilities to reflect the lived experiences of Americans, while the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with a condition that “substantially limits one or more major life activities,” have a record of having one in the past, or a person who “is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” No matter how disability is defined, disabled workers face unique barriers that, without accommodations, may make it difficult or impossible to obtain and maintain a position or gain promotion.
Workers with disabilities—numbering 7.5 million in 2022 and growing since 2020—face a range of challenges in the workplace, from finding stable jobs to receiving equal pay to getting the accommodations they need to keep working. Research shows that unions not only increase wages for disabled workers by 30 percent but also narrow the pay gap between workers with disabilities and those without, while increasing their retention and helping them speak up on the job to secure accommodations. All workers benefit from being able to join a union, but unions help disabled workers in particular overcome inequities in the workplace and support themselves and their families.
Disabled workers and the labor market
Workers with disabilities, especially women, are paid less than workers without disabilities for completing the same work: Workers with disabilities earn a median wage of 66 cents for each $1 earned by workers without disabilities. In some cases, federal law reinforces pay disparities: For example, employers who receive certifications under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act are legally authorized to pay disabled workers lower wages than even the already low federal minimum wage. Disabled workers are also more likely to work part time—at 29 percent in 2021, compared to 16 percent for workers without disabilities. Additionally, disabled workers face the complication that working additional hours could result in receiving lower benefits and therefore reducing total earnings, since support from government programs such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and Medicaid all impose earned income limits or penalties for income from other jobs.
Unions are a way for workers to bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions, and disabled workers are nearly as likely to be members of unions as are workers without disabilities. According to data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) for both 2022 and January 2023 through June 2023 analyzed by the Center for American Progress, 9.4 percent of disabled workers were union members, just below the nationwide union density of 10.1 percent. A large majority of disabled workers are members of the working class: Roughly 70 percent of disabled workers do not have a four-year college degree, and disabled union members are less likely—at 67.2 percent—to have a four-year college degree than nondisabled union workers, at 54 percent. While these data reflect a best estimate of the community of disabled union members, there could be many more workers with disabilities who are members of unions, as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics acknowledges that people with disabilities may be undercounted in surveys such as the CPS.
Unions bring benefits for workers with disabilities
Research has long shown that unions benefit their members in a variety of ways, from higher wages and better benefits to increased job stability and improved training opportunities, while also closing pay and wealth gaps across gender and race. This is true for workers with disabilities as well, with the added benefit of helping workers secure the changes to working conditions they need to do their jobs.
Moreover, disabled workers enjoy a higher union wage premium than workers without disabilities. Since a pay gap exists between disabled workers and nondisabled workers, this wage premium has the effect of narrowing the disability pay gap. Union contracts help establish uniform pay standards for all workers in a workplace who perform similar jobs, giving employers less leeway to undercut wages. This ensures all workers enjoy the same base level of pay regardless of whether they have a disability. In fact, academic research has shown that unions narrow the wage gap while increasing wages for all workers. Although workers without disabilities enjoy a 15 percent increase in wages due to union membership, multiple studies have found that this increase doubles to 30 percent for workers with disabilities. (see Figure 1) As a result, the pay gap between workers with and without disabilities has narrowed: Nonunion workers with disabilities earned 13 percent less than their nondisabled counterparts after controlling for other factors, but union members with disabilities earned only 3 percent less from 2009 to 2018.
Disabled workers face unique challenges in the labor market
On average, 7.5 million disabled Americans worked in 2022. Many, however, want to work yet struggle to find jobs. Research has shown that people with disabilities are far less likely to have a job than are people without disabilities: From 2009 to 2021, the number of employed people relative to the total population was roughly three times as large for people without disabilities than it was for people with disabilities. Many employers are reluctant to hire workers with disabilities, including for roles with union protections, which creates an additional obstacle. Among disabled workers who participated in the labor market in 2022, unemployment—in other words, the proportion of workers actively looking for a job but unable to find one—was more than twice as high for workers with a disability than it was for those without, and the COVID-19 pandemic left millions more workers with chronic illnesses and disabilities due to long COVID. Unions play a crucial role in increasing retention for all workers, but policymakers must also consider a more comprehensive policy package for disabled workers, including additional funding for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, eliminating the 14(c) exemption of the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows disabled workers to be paid less than the minimum wage and reinforces pay disparities, and expanding leave benefits.
Unions can also help disabled workers secure accommodations. Accommodations are adjustments to the ways job duties are typically performed that allow workers with disabilities to get jobs and perform tasks to the same extent as workers without disabilities. These are crucial for helping disabled workers do their jobs, and for employers, they have the added benefit of improving worker productivity and decreasing the amount of money spent on training new hires and on workers’ compensation claims. Many workers with disabilities, however, have a difficult time asking for and receiving the accommodations they need to do their jobs. The University of California workers who went on strike in November 2022 won a contract that establishes a joint labor-management committee to identify accessibility needs, secures temporary work adjustments while accommodations are implemented, and guarantees eight weeks of paid leave for serious health conditions—all of which will help disabled student workers get the accommodations they need to stay on the job now and in the future. Research shows that disabled workers enjoy increased retention in union jobs, making unions important for helping disabled workers stay not only in their jobs but also in the labor force. This is especially significant as millions of workers will experience chronic illnesses and disabilities in their lifetimes—1 in 7 adults has experienced long COVID since 2020—and becoming disabled, even temporarily, can place workers’ ability to support themselves and their families at risk if they do not have enough support from their employers. Because unions give workers and management a process for negotiating working conditions, they play an important role in helping disabled members navigate the process of requesting the accommodations to which they are legally entitled. In fact, academic research has shown that union membership increases the likelihood that a worker will request an accommodation at work, confirming that the role unions play in increasing worker voice on the job extends to the accommodation process. Additionally, workers nationwide have been going on strike to advocate for better health and safety protections.
Union membership offers workers, including those with disabilities, a route to the middle class. The challenges that people with disabilities face in the workforce, including lower wages for similar work and difficulty obtaining and maintaining stable jobs, are the sorts of challenges collective bargaining empowers workers to overcome through negotiation for better wages and working conditions. But the obstacles that prevent millions of workers nationwide from exercising their right to join a union mean fewer workers can experience these benefits. Measures that make joining a union easier—such as the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—which would stiffen penalties for union busting and enhance protections for workers trying to organize their colleagues—and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act that proposes strengthening organizing rights in the public sector would help millions of disabled Americans achieve economic justice on the job.