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Hiring remote disabled workers could help close the labor gap, economist says

The end to America’s nationwide labor shortage is still not in sight, but some economists suggest that having a more diversely-abled workforce in today’s hybrid work culture could help solve it.

The switch to working from home or through a hybrid model as a result of COVID increased the rate of employment for disabled workers. According to the Economic Innovation Group (EIG), disabled individuals between the ages of 25-54 "are 3.5 percentage points more likely to be employed in Q2 2022 than they were pre-pandemic. In contrast, non-disabled individuals were still 1.1 percentage points less likely to be employed."

“The ability to hire remotely allows firms to not just hire workers in their local labor markets but hire workers across the country and in some positions even across the world," Adam Ozimek, chief economist at EIG, told Yahoo Finance. "That is helpful [for the labor shortage]. Firms that embrace remote work will find themselves less subjected to an inability to hire."

The roots of the current worker shortage are linked to the coronavirus pandemic, which wiped out half a million jobs from the U.S. workforce, and the Great Resignation, which took hold after the pandemic. If every unemployed worker filled a job opening, there would still be about 4 million open jobs, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Industrial states like Texas and Ohio are two examples of places that have an extreme labor shortage where more than 200,000 workers are needed. Meanwhile, Washington is the only state in the U.S. that has a surplus of workers.

“The labor shortage is obviously a huge economic problem, but it's also a big opportunity for people with disabilities,” John Robinson, CEO of Our Ability, told Yahoo Finance.

Pre-COVID, 6.3% of disabled individuals worked from home versus 5.9% of non-disabled individuals. Working remotely increases productivity for workers with disabilities because it eliminates challenges such as commuting to work and other environments that can be difficult to navigate.

“I'm 3-foot-8, no arms, no legs," Robinson said. "It's easier for me to communicate here where I can type and have all my assets in front of me. I don't have to worry about carrying a briefcase. I don't have to worry about getting in transportation. So technology has really leveled the playing field for people with disabilities, and I'm just one example of that."

Why it's an advantage

Historically, unemployment rates have been far worse for people with disabilities compared to other demographic groups, according to the Center for American Progress. As of 2022, there are approximately 61 million people living with a disability in the U.S., an “untapped workforce," according to Robinson.

Employment rates for disabled workers, which were already rising before the pandemic, surpassed that of abled workers in remote jobs post-COVID. With a tight labor market, application screening for jobs is less aggressive, which would previously disproportionately affect disabled candidates, as employers would be less likely to accommodate workers with disabilities.

Data shows that there's an upside to employing disabled individuals — according to a report published in Nature, "people with disabilities are often more likely to find appropriate solutions to complex and unexpected problems. This is because they are coping with sometimes difficult personal situations in environments that are not always meant to accommodate their specific requirements."

“Companies are able to thrive when they employ the best talent and actually select the right people for the role versus the best of a narrow, limited pool," Yvonne Cower Yancy, chief administrative officer and head of workplace at Understood.org, told Yahoo Finance. "In fact, the business case for disability inclusion is extensive. In addition to higher profit levels, it also can result in increased employee retention and engagement, increased productivity, a variety of new perspectives to solve existing problems, and more."

Logan Kelble, who suffers from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome hypermobility type 3 and Gastroparesis, shops at the supermarket as part of their routine, in Easton, Maryland, May 12, 2022. REUTERS/Magali Druscovich
Logan Kelble, who suffers from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome hypermobility type 3 and Gastroparesis, shops at the supermarket as part of their routine, in Easton, Maryland, May 12, 2022. REUTERS/Magali Druscovich

Benefits like closed captioning, flexible working hours, medical breaks, and using one’s own assistive technology help produce the best quality of work, accelerating financial growth for a business, she noted.

Essentially, having a disability gives these individuals an advantage over their non-disabled colleagues because of their different perspectives and environments.

"Given that a company’s ability to identify creative and innovative solutions can give it a competitive edge, not hiring people with these sought-after capabilities certainly poses a financial threat to businesses," the report stated.

Both Ozimek and Robinson are optimistic that the remote work trend and higher employment of disabled workers will continue to grow in the future.

“We're seeing the drag on the financial markets because of the labor market," Robinson said. "So if we can present people with disabilities into the labor market in a more equitable way on a long-term basis and use remote work to do it, we can grow our economy, and we can get out of these inflationary times."

Tanya Kaushal is a data reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.

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