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Telework during the Covid-19 pandemic

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Patterns, challenges, and opportunities for people with disabilities

During the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of US workers lost their jobs, and company lockdowns forced the adoption of telecommuting especially for those in white-collar work. This unprecedented growth of telework may have lasting effects on employers’ acceptance of remote work as an accommodation for people with disabilities. Telework can be particularly valuable for people with mobility problems or other conditions that require workplace flexibility, and may enable their job retention and help reduce disability-related economic and workplace disparities. However, telework is not feasible for many service and blue-collar jobs that must be performed in person—jobs in which people with disabilities are concentrated and that were especially hard-hit amid the pandemic. We explore the relationship between disability and telework during the pandemic using US Census Bureau data from the annual American Community Survey and the monthly Current Population Survey.

Since 2008, the percentage of people working primarily from home has risen among people both with and without disabilities, but this trend changed abruptly in 2020 when telework surged during the pandemic. In 2019, people with disabilities were 12% more likely to work primarily at home (6.4% of workers with disabilities compared to 5.7% among other workers); but this pattern changed in 2020 when 16.0% of people without disabilities worked from home compared to 14.1% of those with disabilities. Workers with disabilities lagged in the rapid expansion of telework during the pandemic.

The lower rate of telework among people with disabilities during the pandemic was mostly due to their greater likelihood of working in blue-collar and service occupations that are difficult or impossible to perform remotely. Controlling for occupation, the highest rates of telework occurred among those with cognitive and mobility impairments, and those with more severe (two or more) disabilities.

Do tight labor markets make a difference? Yes, tight labor markets particularly benefited the employment of people with disabilities: a one percentage-point decline in the state unemployment rate is linked to a 2.0% increase in the employment rate for people with disabilities during the pandemic but “only” a 1.2% increase for people without disabilities. Half of these additional jobs for people with disabilities (52%) took the form of telework jobs, while only one third (31%) of the additional jobs from tight labor markets among people without disabilities took the form of telework jobs. 

It is important to consider whether this shift is temporary or will be sustained. The pandemic has made employers rethink job tasks, making them open to remote work as an accommodation. However, many people with disabilities are in jobs that simply cannot be performed remotely. It is important that (i) people with disabilities have greater access to a wide range of jobs, including those that allow telework; (ii) jobs that previously had not been viewed as possibly performable via telework be reconfigured to allow telework; and (iii) of course, that all workers involved in telework are treated equally. For all teleworkers, it is crucial that they do not find themselves “out of sight, out of mind” and that they receive fair pay and equal opportunities for promotion.

© Mason Ameri, Douglas Kruse, So Ri Park, Yana Rodgers, and Lisa Schur

Mason Ameri is Associate Professor of Professional Practice in the Rutgers University Business School.
Douglas Kruse is Distinguished Professor in the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations and a Research Fellow of IZA.
So Ri Park is a PhD student in the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations.
Yana Rodgers is Professor in the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations and a Research Fellow of IZA.
Lisa Schur is Professor in the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations.

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We recognize that IZA World of Labor articles may prompt discussion and possibly controversy. Opinion pieces, such as the one above, capture ideas and debates concisely, and anchor them with real-world examples. Opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of the IZA.