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What Explains the COVID Era Increase in Employment for Individuals with Disabilities?

Following the COVID-19 recession, employment rates for individuals with disabilities hit record highs nationwide and in North Carolina, yet the exact reasons behind this sudden increase remain largely unresolved. In this article, we use American Community Survey (ACS) data to examine several proposed explanations for the surprising uptick in disability employment.

Author: Jonathan Guarine

Researchers and news outlets have documented a surprising increase in disability employment rates following the COVID-19 recession. Similarly, in a previous LEAD Feed article, we noted how employment among North Carolinians with disabilities has risen since 2020. What’s behind this sudden and surprising uptick in employment for those with disabilities?

Based on American Community Survey (ACS) data from the US Census Bureau, we find that this employment increase is likely attributable to an influx of newly disabled workers with Long COVID symptoms. Other factors such as remote work opportunities and tight labor market conditions have likely played a role as well, though to a lesser extent.

Impacts of Long COVID

Following the COVID-19 recession, the employed share of the working-age population with disabilities rose quickly from 35% to 42%--a seven percentage point increase over two years (see Figure 1). For reference, it took eight years from 2011 to 2019 for the employment-population ratio to increase by six percentage points following the Great Recession.

Figure 1

Disability employment has risen sharply following the COVID-19 recession

Long COVID is one possible explanation for the rapid rise in disability employment. Although most people infected with COVID-19 recover within a few weeks, some remain symptomatic months or even years later. These so-called “COVID long-haulers” suffer from debilitating symptoms that interfere with daily work and leisure activities, so much so that some become disabled.[1]

Many workers with Long COVID symptoms reduce work hours or drop out of the labor force entirely. However, for many other long-haulers who remain working, their continued employment pushes up the overall employment level in the broader population with disabilities.

In other words, the composition of the population with disabilities has changed since the pandemic began to include newly disabled individuals with Long COVID symptoms. These individuals are more likely to be attached to the labor force and employed than those who had pre-existing disabilities before the pandemic. The result has been a higher overall employment rate for those with disabilities in North Carolina and nationwide.

Existing data on long-haulers and their disabilities are scarce[2]; however, we can use ACS data to make inferences about the changing composition of disability employment. One of the hallmark symptoms of Long COVID is “brain fog”—a cognitive impairment that affects concentration, memory, and other executive functions. “Cognitive difficulty” is one of the six disability types[3] recorded in the ACS data, allowing us to track employment trends among those with a self-identified cognitive disability.

Compared to other disability types, working-age individuals with cognitive difficulties experienced much faster employment growth since the pandemic began (see Figure 2). Employment grew from 86,500 workers in 2020 to 123,000 workers by 2022. Although the employment trajectory was trending up before the pandemic, the pace of growth accelerated after 2020.[4] This finding aligns with national-level trends in cognitive disabilities and would lend itself to a Long COVID explanation for the uptick in employment.

Figure 2

Employment has surged among those with cognitive disabilities

Impacts of Remote Work

Growth in remote work has also been cited as another potential driver of increased disability employment. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work has been seen as a valuable work accommodation for individuals with disabilities, especially for those with transportation barriers or ambulatory difficulties.

When we examine data for North Carolina, we find that rates of remote work rose for both workers with and without disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic (see Figure 3). In 2021, 19% of workers without disabilities indicated they worked from home, compared to 15% of workers with disabilities. These rates were well above the pre-pandemic average of 6% from 2017 to 2019. Since 2021, the prevalence of remote work has come down, perhaps reflecting a gradual return to in-person work.

Upon closer inspection, the proposed connection between remote work and increased disability employment has some limitations. Hypothetically, individuals with ambulatory difficulties would benefit the most from remote work opportunities given their mobility restrictions. Yet as seen in Figure 2, the number of employed workers with ambulatory difficulties actually declined following the COVID-19 recession. Nevertheless, various anecdotes suggest that at least on the margins, remote work has provided flexible work opportunities for some workers with disabilities.

Figure 3

Remote work increased across the economy regardless of disability status

Labor Market Tightness

Finally, increased disability employment may simply be due to tight labor market conditions that have provided jobseekers with more opportunities. In 2022, there were 0.9 jobseekers per job opening in North Carolina—the lowest recorded level going back to 2001. In response to reported hiring difficulties, some employers have increasingly turned to untapped or underutilized talent pools, including those with disabilities.

It's worth noting that even before the pandemic, employment was already rising for those with disabilities throughout the 2010s (see Figure 1). This suggests that the recent uptick in disability employment may not be entirely due to pandemic-specific factors, but may rather reflect a continuation of pre-pandemic trends in the labor market.

Increased disability employment has become a silver lining of the post-pandemic economy. However, the exact reasons for the sudden increase remain unresolved. There are likely multiple forces at work, including but not limited to Long COVID, remote work, and a tight labor market. While the recent developments appear encouraging, it will be important to continue monitoring this trend in disability employment over the coming years. 


[1] In 2021, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) published guidance on how Long COVID can be a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

[2] The U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey (HPS) provides information on Long COVID prevalence across states; however, the survey has substantially lower response rates compared to other federally sponsored surveys, making inferences fraught with uncertainty.

[3] The ACS data records six different disability types that respondents can self-identify: (i) hearing difficulty, (ii) vision difficulty, (iii) cognitive difficulty, (iv) ambulatory difficulty, (v) self-care difficulty, and (vi) independent living difficulty. The categories are not mutually exclusive, so respondents can report multiple disability types.

[4] From 2017-2019 employment among those with cognitive difficulties increased 15.3%. Following the COVID-19 recession, the pace of employment growth nearly tripled, rising 42.3% from 2020-2022.

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