Are Workers with a Disability Facing New Opportunities or New Challenges?

July 09, 2024

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed the way that Americans work: Many are rejecting the office environment in favor of remote work. At the same time, the tight labor market has compelled employers to offer more flexible work accommodations in order to tap into new labor sources, such as those with disabilities, parents with young children, those with uneven work histories, or retirees. Consequently, many groups that were traditionally disconnected from the labor force, such as those with disabilities, are more likely to be employed now versus before the pandemic. In particular, the employment-to-population (E-P) ratio for working-age individuals (ages 16 to 64) who have a disability has risen 5.8 percentage points in the four years since February 2020,February 2024 was used as the end date to avoid introducing seasonal dynamics since the data are not seasonally adjusted. while the E-P ratio for those without a disability has only returned to its pre-pandemic level. (See the figure below.)

Employment-to-Population Ratio (Ages 16-64), by Disability Status

A bar chart shows that the employment-to-population ratio for people without a disability was 74.8% in February 2020 and 74.6% in February 2024. The employment-to-population ratio for those with a disability was 30.9% in February 2020 and increased to 36.7% in February 2024.

SOURCE: Current Population Survey (via FRED).

NOTE: February 2024 was used as the end date to avoid introducing seasonal dynamics since the data are not seasonally adjusted.

As of February 2024, the E-P ratio for those with a disability was 36.7%—a stark increase from 30.9% in February 2020. Conversely, the E-P ratio for those without a disability was 74.6% in February 2024, a 0.2 percentage point decrease relative to February 2020.

The above figure indicates that COVID-19 may have generated more-favorable conditions for disabled workers given the surprising changes in the E-P ratio for that cohort; however, this does not tell the entire story. To better understand these surprising changes in the E-P ratio, we consider the measure’s two components: employment and population.

Rising Employment for Workers with a Disability

The figure below displays employment levels indexed to a value of 100 in February 2020 for individuals with and without a disability.

Indexed Level of Employment (Ages 16-64), by Disability Status

A line chart shows that the indexed level of the employment among those with a disability increased from 96.2 in January 2009 to 137.5 in May 2024. For employment among those without a disability, the index increased from 91.1 in January 2009 to 101.8 in May 2024.

SOURCES: Current Population Survey (via FRED) and authors’ calculations.

NOTE: The data, which begin in January 2009 and end in May 2024, are not seasonally adjusted.

The orange line signifies employment for those with a disability; by February 2024, the index value for this group increased to 131.3, indicating a 31.3% increase in employment for those with a disability since February 2020. More concretely, roughly 1.5 million disabled workers were added to the employed ranks in this period.

The blue line, signifying employment for those without a disability, tells a different story. Accordingly, in February 2024, the index value for this series was 100.4, representing a 0.4% increase in employment for those without a disability—this implies that about a 600,000 increase in employment of individuals without a disability since February 2020. Next, we consider the other half of the E-P ratio: the population.

The Population of People with a Disability Has Grown Rapidly

The figure below plots the working-age population with a disability and the working-age population without a disability, respectively. Again, both series are indexed to a value of 100 in February 2020.

Indexed Level of Population (Ages 16-64), by Disability Status

A line chart shows the indexed level of the population with a disability increased from 97.5 in January 2009 to 110.9 in May 2024. For the population without a disability, the increase was 95.8 in January 2009 to 100.8 May 2024.

SOURCES: Current Population Survey (via FRED) and authors’ calculations.

NOTE: The data, which begin in January 2009 and end in May 2024, are not seasonally adjusted.

By February 2024, the index value for the working-age population with a disability increased to 110.3, indicating that this population rose by 10.3%, or 1.6 million people. In contrast, the index value for the working-age population of those without a disability was only 100.7 in February 2024, denoting that this population rose by 0.7%, or 1.4 million people. Thus, the U.S. working-age population with a disability grew faster than the working-age population without a disability.

The disabled working-age population increased by roughly 1.6 million in the four years since February 2020, while the number of disabled individuals who are employed increased by 1.5 million at the same time. In contrast, between February 2009 and February 2020, the disabled working-age population increased by only 389,000 individuals, and the number of disabled individuals who were employed increased by 185,000. Thus, increases in the E-P ratio for those with a disability should not be wholly attributed to employers finding ways to hire disabled workers.

Instead, given the rapid growth of the disabled population, it is more likely that the pandemic increased disabilities among both the population and the workforce, resulting in higher E-P ratios for those with disabilities. Therefore, work-from-home and other workplace adaptations to the COVID-19 pandemic should not necessarily be regarded as a boon to those with disabilities. For example, research suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic is associated with worsening mental and physical health. It could be that these long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic left many workers disabled. Consequently, many disabled workers may be participating in the labor force while wrestling with the lasting impacts of COVID-19.

Since the emergence of COVID-19, increases in the E-P ratio among disabled workers may indicate new opportunities in America’s workplaces. In some respects, this is true—workplaces have been transformed, and firms are clearly employing more individuals with disabilities. At the same time, however, underlying increases in the disabled population indicate that this rising ratio may also be the result of a growing cohort of disabled workers characterized by an inability to leave the labor force. Further research into the state of American disability following the COVID-19 pandemic is necessary to further disentangle this complicated topic.

Note

  1. February 2024 was used as the end date to avoid introducing seasonal dynamics since the data are not seasonally adjusted.
About the Authors
Charles S. Gascon
Charles S. Gascon

Charles Gascon is a research officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. His focus is national and regional economic analysis. He joined the St. Louis Fed in 2006. Read more about the author and his research.

Charles S. Gascon
Charles S. Gascon

Charles Gascon is a research officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. His focus is national and regional economic analysis. He joined the St. Louis Fed in 2006. Read more about the author and his research.

Samuel Moore

Samuel Moore is an intern with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Samuel Moore

Samuel Moore is an intern with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

This blog offers commentary, analysis and data from our economists and experts. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.


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