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Beyond BLS

Beyond BLS briefly summarizes articles, reports, working papers, and other works published outside BLS on broad topics of interest to MLR readers.

April 2023

COVID-19 and employment outcomes of people with disabilities

Summary written by: Yavor Ivanchev

During economic downturns, people with disabilities suffer more severe labor market impacts than their counterparts without disabilities. During the 2007−09 Great Recession, for example, job losses were more prevalent among people with disabilities, and the postrecession employment recovery for that group was markedly slower. But did the same predicament reemerge during and after the 2020 recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic?

This is the question addressed in Ari Ne’eman and Nicole Maestas’ recent article titled “How has COVID-19 impacted disability employment?” (National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 30640, November 2022). The authors note that, in theory, the effects of COVID-19 on the employment experiences of people with disabilities are not clear cut. On the one hand, fear of viral exposure in face-to-face interactions, coupled with job discrimination, may have put workers in this group at a disadvantage in the labor market. On the other hand, pandemic-induced increases in the use of telework, together with tight postrecession labor market conditions, may have given those workers a much-needed employment boost.

Considering these possibilities, the authors use data from the Current Population Survey to examine employment trends for people with and without disabilities before, during, and after the COVID-19 recession, focusing on the period from the first quarter of 2020 to the second quarter of 2022. The main dependent variable in the analysis is the employment-to-population ratio (employment rate) for each group, with the numerator of that variable capturing only people who are both employed and “at work” (rather than individuals who may be employed but furloughed). The authors’ models also include a series of demographic control variables (age, gender, race, and education) and capture differences across occupational types (essential jobs, teleworkable jobs, etc.).

The empirical results presented in the article differ sharply from those reported for previous recessions, indicating that people with disabilities may have reaped employment benefits from the transformational effects of the pandemic. Although people with and without disabilities both experienced significant declines in their employment rates in the first half of 2020, the former’s rate saw a strong recovery in the subsequent 2 years. By the second quarter of 2022, that rate had exceeded its prepandemic level by nearly 3.6 percentage points, whereas the rate for people without disabilities stood about 0.5 percentage point below the level recorded before the pandemic. Over the recovery period, people with disabilities also experienced faster employment growth in percent terms and a stronger rebound in their labor force participation rate.

Another important result reported in the article is that the relatively faster employment recovery for people with disabilities was driven mainly by those employed in essential, nonfrontline occupations amenable to telework. According to the authors, this finding indicates that this group of workers benefited from the sharp expansion of telework after the pandemic hit. However, the authors caution that it remains unclear how much of the group’s employment recovery could be attributed to an increase in the number of people who became disabled because of the adverse health effects of the pandemic.