New Data on Disability Employment: Small Gains But Institutional Barriers Remain

by | Feb 23, 2023 | Fair Pay

Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual data about disabled people in the U.S. workforce. The data reveal noteworthy increases in the size and employment rate of the disabled population, as well as deep and persistent gaps in labor force participation and employment, especially for women, Black and Latinx people with disabilities.

In 2022, disabled people generally were only about one-third as likely to be in the labor force compared to non-disabled people. Disabled women are slightly less likely to be in the labor force than disabled men. Women are more likely than men to have a disability, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Disabled women also face unique barriers to achieving equity in the workforce.

There are many reasons for this gap in workforce participation between disabled and non-disabled people. First, there are barriers to competitive integrated employment. “Competitive integrated employment” means that disabled employees are working alongside non-disabled employees, earning the same or comparable pay and benefits with opportunities for advancement. Some of these barriers include a lack of job supports, reliance on subminimum wage opportunities, and problems coordinating services that disabled people who may be able to work can receive, such as vocational rehabilitation and other services.

Second, disabled people may experience disability discrimination in hiring, firing, promotion and other employment decisions. In fact, disability discrimination was the second most-common type of claim that workers reported to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2020, behind only retaliation. This discrimination is compounded for disabled women, and disabled women of color in particular, who may face additional forms of discrimination in addition to disability discrimination. Part of this discrimination may include disabled Americans experiencing difficulty receiving reasonable accommodations in the workplace.

Third, disabled Americans often have concerns about losing important and life-saving benefits like Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Medicaid if they choose to work. These types of benefits are generally affected by income. SSI and SSDI eligibility are affected by “substantial gainful activity,” or a level of work that leads to a certain amount in earnings. In 2023, this amount is $2,460 per month for blind folks and $1,470 per month for non-blind disabled folks (note that the substantial gainful activity limit for blind folks does not apply to SSI-only SSDI). In addition, Medicaid and SSI eligibility may be at risk if a certain amount in assets is saved. As little as $20 of income from work while on SSI, for example, could also lead to benefit cuts and even overpayments. Overpayments happen when benefits are paid, but a government agency later claims the benefits should not have been paid. A benefit recipient may then owe money to a government agency they cannot afford to pay. This means that while Social Security is a critical support for disabled people – both those who work and those who are unable to do so – there are essential ways to strengthen the programs that do not disincentivize work.

Finally, there are disabled folks who are unable to work due to their disabilities. Their worth is not, and should not, be tied to their ability to work. They deserve to be able to live comfortably, safely, and with dignity. Increasing all Social Security Administration benefit amounts, increasing or eliminating (earned and unearned) income and substantial gainful activity limits and increasing or eliminating Supplemental Security Income asset limits are important for improving economic health and opportunities for disabled people. The National Partnership for Women & Families has endorsed the Social Security Expansion Act, which would increase Social Security Disability Insurance benefits by $2,400 per year.

Even for disabled people who are in the labor force, concerns about discrimination, benefits, and barriers to competitive integrated employment continue to create problems. Despite a tight labor market last year, disabled people were more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people. Black and Latinx or Hispanic people with disabilities had higher unemployment rates than white disabled people. Black people with disabilities had the highest rate of unemployment at 12.3%.

Race and disability interact in important ways. For example, Black and Hispanic or Latinx disabled workers face higher rates of unemployment than their white counterparts and Black and Indigenous people are more likely than other working-age adults to be disabled. In addition, Black and Asian people with disabilities are less likely to be in the labor force than white people with disabilities. While overall, 67.8 percent of people without disabilities are in the labor force, only 23.5 percent of white people with disabilities are. Just 20.5 percent of Black people with disabilities and 19.1 percent of Asian people with disabilities are in the labor force. These health and other inequities are the result of public policies shaped by racism, sexism, ableism and other forms of marginalization, causing lack of access to health care, medical discrimination and racism in health care, greater exposure to environmental harms and lack of access to safe jobs and adequate incomes.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, people with disabilities have grown as a share of the workforce, as well as the population at large. Labor force participation among disabled women in particular made a huge jump of 16% between 2019 and 2022.

The data also show that since 2020, there’s been a small but clear uptick in the share of disabled people who are employed – and the gap between men and women with disabilities has narrowed.

However, even with the increase in people with disabilities in the workforce, there is still a higher rate of unemployment within the disabled community – especially among Black and Latinx people with disabilities.

That makes it even more important to make sure disabled people who want jobs have access to the supports and protections they need. There are likely a few reasons for this increase of disabled people, and particularly women, in the workforce.

First, employer flexibility and options for remote work have expanded over the course of the pandemic, leaving doors open for disabled workers that had been closed before. We need to make sure this flexibility continues, not just for disabled folks, but for everyone. Workplace flexibility and remote options benefit parents and families, caregivers and others. Paid family and medical leave and paid sick leave that includes chosen family are also important safeguards for all workers and particularly for disabled workers who are both caretakers and need care. Let’s also make sure front-line disabled workers in non-remote positions have the supports, flexibility and protections they need; appropriate COVID precautions in place; and more.

Second, the labor market has been “tighter” in recent years – meaning that there are a lot of jobs available but not many workers. That has put pressure on employers to expand their flexibility to recruit and retain employees, and to rethink assumptions about when, where and how to perform work that limit opportunities for disabled workers. We can’t reverse this progress when the labor market changes in the future. Employers must continue to hire and support disabled employees, who are dedicated, loyal and quality employees. Continuing flexibility is a win for both employers and employees.

One last thing to think about is long COVID’s effect on the makeup of the workforce. Long COVID may affect 10 to 33 million adults in the U.S. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, transgender people and cisgender women are more likely to experience long COVID compared to cisgender men, and rates of long COVID are also elevated for Latinx and multiracial people. It’s possible this increase in disabled people in the U.S. contributed to the growth of the disabled workforce too.

Today’s Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data continue to show a need for policy changes that improve inclusion and equity, not only for disabled workers, but also for those disabled folks who are not in the workforce. We must continue to fight to achieve the following:

  1. Modernize Social Security benefits, eligibility, and asset limits to adjust for current levels of inflation and costs of living;
  2. Eliminate the subminimum wage for disabled workers;
  3. Combat workplace discrimination with more robust enforcement of anti-discrimination laws;
  4. National paid family and medical leave and paid sick leave for all; and
  5. Support workplace flexibility, including remote work and flexible schedules where possible.