‘I Really Loved My Job’: Why the Pandemic Has Hit These Workers Harder

People with disabilities are disproportionately employed in industries that have suffered in the pandemic.

By Andy Newman

Gisella Chambers had finally landed a job as a banquet cook at the retro-chic TWA Hotel at Kennedy Airport and made such an impression that she was named employee of the month. But last March, Ms. Chambers, who has a learning disability, was laid off with the rest of the catering staff.

Rocio Morel, who has a rare genetic disorder, lost her job at a Uniqlo in Midtown Manhattan.

E.V., 39, had been unemployed for eight years, struggling with schizophrenia, before finding work in 2019 processing MetroCard customer claims. “Just to be productive again, it makes you feel human,” said E.V., who asked to be identified by her initials because of the stigma around the disease. Her job is gone, too.

As brutal as the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic has been in much of the country, it has been especially devastating for the nearly six million Americans with disabilities in the labor force. Many organizations in New York that help disabled people find employment say more than half their clients lost their jobs, according to the Center for an Urban Future, a policy organization. Similar scenes are playing out nationwide.

In Chicago, 40 percent of the nearly 200 people with disabilities who had found jobs through a nonprofit called Aspire lost them and remain unemployed. A similar organization in Atlanta, Disability Link, said nearly a third of its clients who held jobs were now out of work.

And Northwest Center, which supports workers with intellectual and physical disabilities in Washington State, said that at the height of the shutdown, only about 15 of its 208 employed clients had kept their jobs, though a few dozen were working again. Federal employment figures show more modest but still disproportionate losses for the disabled nationwide.

The problem is not that these workers have been targeted for layoffs, but that they are disproportionately employed in industries that have been hammered, like clothing stores, food services and hospitality, where nearly half the jobs have disappeared. They are also more likely to be in entry-level positions. And it takes longer for people with disabilities to find work, so they are often among the least senior workers and the first laid off.

“The overwhelming majority of our participants lost their jobs,” said Susan Scheer, chief executive of the Institute for Career Development in Manhattan, which in a typical year finds employment for 200 to 300 disabled people.

The category of workers with disabilities covers a range of people, from those whose challenges are entirely physical to people with serious developmental disabilities. The workers who lost their jobs were teaching assistants and warehouse laborers, greeters and runners and messengers and lifeguards and medical billers. They shredded documents and organized refrigerators, wiped down yoga mats, returned shopping carts from parking lots and restocked the salad bar. Some were managers or held advanced degrees.

There is a widespread assumption that people with disabilities don’t need to work because they can collect Supplemental Security Income, or S.S.I. But Martha Jackson, an assistant commissioner in the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, said S.S.I. pays only about $800 per month in New York — enough to survive on combined with other benefits, but hardly a ticket to comfort. For some who still live with their parents and worked only part time, holding a job was a step toward independence.

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