In a Remote Work World, have the Disabled Benefitted?

In 2020 and 2021, I was going a little Zoom crazy. Every class I taught was in the dreaded “Hybrid” model. I had half my students with me in the classroom, and half on Zoom…one can only assume, asleep. In addition, I was doing all of my office hours on Zoom, at seemingly every hour of the day. After all, I had kids in China, Korea, and Japan to think about. I probably said the words “You’re muted” 1,000 times. And, I can’t imagine how many hours I spent wondering if the student I was talking to was confused to the point of silence, or just had a slow internet connection. I woke up at 2 in the morning most nights thinking that my students were somehow watching me sleep on Zoom. I started sleeping in Khakis and a button down, just to be safe.

Me, on Zoom, wondering where it went wrong.

Which is why it’s a little amazing that I still use Zoom now, even though I don’t have to. It’s a great way to meet with students who can’t make it to office hours physically. And, sometimes I even prefer Zoom. There’s something nice about having a student screen share their computer code so that I can complain about it at a safe distance. Indeed, the point of this post is to point out something nice about remote work…that it might just level the playing field for individuals with a disability.

Remote Work and Disability

As I’ve written about before, I have a special place in my heart for issues related to retirement. I spent four years researching it pretty intensively. And, one of the least shocking things I learned during this research is that someone’s health really matters in determining their retirement outcomes. For example, unexpectedly poor health is probably the biggest reason workers retire earlier than they planned.

Of course, health matters earlier in the lifespan too. The Current Population Survey (CPS) — the survey that provides U.S. estimates of monthly unemployment — collects data on the labor market outcomes of individuals facing cognitive or physical difficulties. These difficulties range from issues with vision or hearing, to those making it hard to walk, climb stairs, or leave home. Prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic, just one third of individuals aged 25-64 and facing these difficulties were in the labor force, compared to over 80 percent for those without such difficulties. And, when those with difficulties did work, they earned about 77 percent as much as those without difficulties.

Enter remote work. For those facing cognitive or physical difficulties, remote work makes being employed easier. For those with physical difficulties, any transportation barriers are removed. And, for those facing cognitive or emotional difficulties, the home environment may be less stressful. So, does any of this benefit show up in the data? The answer seems to be yes. The two figures below illustrate: 1) the labor force participation of workers facing physical/cognitive difficulties as identified by the CPS; and 2) a comparison of these workers to those without such difficulties, relative to the pre-pandemic period. The figures are clear — those with these difficulties are working more, absolutely and relatively.

Figure 1. Labor Force Participation of those Facing Physical/Cognitive Difficulties

Figure 2. Labor Force Participation Relative to January 2020

Note: Includes individuals 25-64. Difficulties include with vision, hearing, physical issues like climbing stairs or leaving home, and issues with memory or caring for one self. Source: Current Population Survey through IPUMS.

Remote Work: Looking Forward

Clearly, the post-pandemic world has seen an increase in work for those with a disability. Plus, the earnings gap has shrunk too. That 77 percent that these workers made relative to their non-disabled counterparts prior to the pandemic? It’s increased to 84 percent. So, it seems that in a world with more remote work, the disabled may be benefitting.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see what other unintended consequences — both good and bad — that this shift to remote work has had. For example, will remote work help mothers more easily maintain the flexible hours childcare often demands of them, decreasing the wage gap? Or, will working from home with kids simply be an added burden? Will front-line workers who can’t work from home end up with unequal time to spend with their families relative to white-collar workers?

These are all things I’m keeping an eye on going forward into a world with more remote work. Now, please excuse me while I jump onto a Zoom. Oh god, this kid is muted…

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