March 10, 2023
Disabled people are much less likely to have jobs than non-disabled people, and those with jobs are paid less and receive fewer employment benefits. In its monthly job reports, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) disaggregates several important employment and labor force indicators by disability status. BLS categorizes a person age 15 or older as disabled if they respond “yes” to at least one of six disability questions included in the Current Population Survey. These questions—which ask about difficulties with vision, hearing, ambulation, cognition, self-care, and independent living—are known as the “short set” of disability questions and provide a reasonable but somewhat limited measure of disability.
BLS releases a job report on the first or second Friday of each month. The job report for employment in February 2023 was released on the second Friday of March 2023. The monthly numbers for disability employment are volatile and not seasonally adjusted, so in this article, we generally use quarterly and annual averages, and for 2023 we use the average of January and February.
In the first two months of 2023, BLS counted a monthly average of about 16.2 million working-age people (16- to 64-year-olds) with disabilities. Most of these disabled people—about 9.7 million or 60.1 percent—were “not in the labor force,” meaning they were neither employed nor actively looking for work. About 6 million —36.8 percent of working-age disabled people—were employed in January-February 2023, and about half a million were actively looking for work but unemployed. The unemployment rate for disabled working-age people—which is equal to the number employed divided by the number in the labor force)—was 7.8 percent in January-February, much higher than the comparable rate for non-disabled people
The current disability employment rate is the highest ever since the federal government added disability-related questions to the Current Population Survey in 2008. Before 2022, the previous peak in the annual disability employment rate was in 2019, it then plummeted in 2020 and 2021 at the height of the pandemic.
The media have painted the current relatively high disability employment in uniformly favorable terms. As an October 2022 New York Times story headline put it: “For Disabled Workers, a Tight Labor Market Opens New Doors: With Covid prompting more employers to consider remote arrangements, employment has soared among adults with disabilities.” Various explanations have been proposed to account for the increase, including the strong job market pulling disabled people into the labor market, employers being more willing to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees, and the shift to remote work.
This story is too simple. The focus on the disability employment rate has obscured the fact that the actual number of disabled people between the ages of 16 and 64 who remain outside the labor force—not employed or actively looking for work—is only modestly lower than it was before the pandemic. Figure 1 shows that about 9.78 million working-age disabled people were out of the labor force in the first quarter of 2023, compared to 10.28 million and 10.07 million in the first quarters of 2018 and 2019, respectively.
How is the disability employment rate at an all-time high, even though the actual number of disabled working-age people who are not in the labor force remains so high? The answer is that the number and share of 16- to 64-year-olds reporting disability have surged in recent years. As the table shows, about 1.2 million more working-age people reported a disability in 2022 than in 2019, and their share of the total working-age population has increased by half a percentage point.
The COVID-19 pandemic is almost certainly the driver of this increase. Over 103 million cases have been reported in the United States. Although the number of new US cases has plunged since hitting its record high—about 20.3 million in January 2022—the pandemic is not over. During the recent Omicron wave in December 2022 and early January 2023, about 450,000 new COVID-19 cases were reported weekly. In the first week of March 2023, about 170,000 cases were reported.
Millions of people who are no longer in the acute phase of COVID-19 continue to experience lingering negative effects. In Fall 2022, 17.2 million adults reported experiencing Long COVID, and 4.3 million said their daily activities were limited “a lot.”
The Current Population Survey does not include direct questions about Long COVID or related activity limitations—our estimates for Fall 2022 are from the Household Pulse Survey—so we cannot easily estimate the impact of Long COVID on the disability trend in their data. However, as we previously documented, there has been an especially large uptick in the share of working-age adults reporting cognitive difficulties, which is one of the six questions used to measure disability in the Current Population Survey. One of the most common symptoms of Long COVID is brain fog, so it is likely a major contributing factor to the recent increase in disability.
The exact nature and extent of Long COVID’s effect on the workforce remain unclear. It is also not immediately apparent how much the increase in employment among working-age people with disabilities may be due to continuing employment among those who have joined the disability population during the ongoing pandemic. Based on preliminary analysis, it appears that among employed working-age adults, the disability share has increased considerably more among those with education beyond high school than among those with a high school degree or less. While only preliminary, this suggests that the uptick in disabled employment may be attributable to those with stronger anchors in the labor market staying employed after developing a disability during the pandemic.
What is clear is that the record highs in disabled employment appear to be concealing a more sobering set of facts. Despite the tight labor market and the much-touted increase in flexible working conditions and accommodations, the number of working-age adults with disabilities who are not in the labor force has remained almost unchanged from before the pandemic. At the same time, both the number and the share of working-age people reporting disabilities have increased considerably.