Oct 26, 2022 - Economy

Behind the surge in workers with disabilities: long COVID

Data: NYFed analysis of the Current Population Survey; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: NYFed analysis of the Current Population Survey; Chart: Axios Visuals

There's been a surge of about 900,000 people with disabilities in the U.S. workforce since 2020, likely because of the increase in Americans with long COVID, according to new research published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Why it matters: It's an encouraging sign, in one sense. Disabled Americans face enormous obstacles in the job market; if folks with long COVID can keep working, that means some employers are accommodating their needs.

  • But as the economy cools, employers could become less willing on that front — and it's an open question as to whether these folks stay employed.
  • "I hope that isn't true, but it's something I would certainly keep an eye on," says Katie Bach, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings who has been studying long COVID's impact on the workforce, and recently found the condition is keeping as many as 4 million people out of work.

State of play: The pandemic led to an increase in the number of Americans who say they're disabled. (See the chart below.)

  • There were 1.05 million more disabled working-age Americans in August 2022 compared to January 2020, according to data compiled by Richard Deitz, an economist at the NY Fed.
  • "The majority [of the newly disabled] deal with fatigue and brain fog, the hallmarks of long COVID," he writes.
Data: NYFed analysis of the Current Population Survey; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: NYFed analysis of the Current Population Survey; Chart: Axios Visuals

The intrigue: Economists are still nailing down why so many more disabled people, who traditionally have very low labor force participation, are working now.

  • Deitz's paper is among the first to pinpoint long COVID as a possible factor; others attribute the surge to the tight labor market and the rise of remote work — which can make it easier for disabled workers to remain employed or get a job.
  • There's likely an interplay between the two. Some disabled people can now more easily work remotely and may have entered the job market; and the ability to work from home is also helping many of those with long COVID — a cohort that didn't exist before 2020 — keep their jobs.

What they're saying: "I would bet that the majority of the [increase in disabled workers] is people with long COVID who are still working," Bach says. She's currently researching the newly disabled population to better understand these numbers.

Zoom out: Long COVID is similar to another condition called myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, which Deitz himself suffers from, he writes. Telework and flexible scheduling have been key when it comes to keeping those with the condition in the workforce.

  • "Such accommodations can help workers with long COVID control their environment, avoid physical exertion around commuting, and take rest breaks as needed, helping them to manage their symptoms and remain productive," he writes.

Yes, but: Not all work can be done remotely or on a flex schedule.

  • Bach says that often folks who are diagnosed with ME/CFS initially stay in their jobs, but ultimately wind up dropping out of the workforce. "That is a story we hear a lot. It's like, 'Yeah, I kept working for a couple years and then I just couldn't anymore.' "

What to watch: Disability counts have fallen in recent months. That could mean long COVID sufferers have recovered and no longer consider themselves disabled, Deitz writes.

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