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COVID is adding scores of newly disabled employees – and challenges – to the workforce

March 28, 2021 |

“Disabilities are part of life,” Stack said. “We’re going to be your neighbor. We’re going to be in your community. Disabilities don’t care about your financial status, your religion, your race, sex or age. You get a disability, you’re just going to have it.”

The ranks of the disabled also now include COVID patients with lasting symptoms and protracted recoveries. The “long haulers” will add to New Jersey’s 890,000 residents that the Centers For Disease Control says have physical or mental disabilities.

More disabled people in the workforce means businesses must confront legal and moral questions of how to recruit, retain and accommodate disabled workers as never before. Coronavirus and remote work make this an immediate, urgent concern.

A survey published earlier this year by the English medical journal BMJ, found that 72% of 3,700 COVID patients who fell ill at the start of the pandemic had not returned to work or were working reduced hours. An eye-popping 97% reported chronic symptoms beyond 90 days of their COVID diagnosis. They may face resistance at work or were pushed out when it became clear to employers that their recovery would exceed two weeks.

“There is evidence that people are not functioning at the level they did before they went on a ventilator or had a long hospital stay,” Stack said. Recovery from having been put on a ventilator, in particular, can be a lengthy process.

A small number of these so-called “long-haulers” face debilitating brain fog and have remained sick for months and months, plagued by memory problems and an onslaught of varied symptoms. As they navigate doctors appointments and mounting medical bills, many are simultaneously losing months of pay or fighting for alternate work arrangements so they can stay afloat financially.

Community Options, one of the biggest non-profits in New Jersey and a major employer of physically and cognitively disabled workers, was founded 30 years ago by Stack. It has nearly 5,000 employees in a dozen states. In New Jersey, workers answer telephones, do cleaning and shredding of documents at a network of temporary rental office facilities.

While hundreds of Community Options clients and employees contracted the virus, only seven cases were fatal, Stack said.

Thankfully, the pandemic has not exempted New Jersey businesses from employment laws. Last year, the New Jersey Legislature passed amendments to the Family Leave Act (NJFLA), the Earned Sick Leave Law (ESLL), and the New Jersey Millville Dallas Airmotive Plant Job Loss Notification Act, commonly referred to as the New Jersey WARN Act. Many updates strengthened employer notice and posting requirements.

Not a moment too soon as the algorithm-based hiring tools are coming in vogue.

A study by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) found that many employers use electronic résumé screeners, while 76% of companies with 100 employees ask job candidates to take personality and aptitude tests.

Remote work and machined-aided screening mark a worrisome trend for the disabled and alter the human element between employers and workers.

“We all work for money, but we also work for relationships. What remote has done in some cases is create one more barrier of isolation that the disabled encounter,” Stack said. “It’s just another way of people not talking to each other, physically. For people with disabilities, many of us benefit from interfacing with other people.”