Why Union Membership Is Good For Workers With Disabilities

July 27, 2022

This week marks the end of Disability Pride Month and the 32nd anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA was a landmark piece of legislation that enshrined important protections for people with disabilities into law. These protections included rules meant to ensure equitable treatment for “qualified individuals with disabilities” by employers. The ADA also established new standards for infrastructural and informational accessibility.

Despite the promise of the ADA, people with disabilities continue to face significant economic hardship. People with disabilities remain more likely to experience poverty than people without disabilities. Employment levels for working-age people with disabilities remain far below those of their nondisabled peers, and workers with disabilities make just $0.74 per dollar earned by workers without disabilities. These persistent disparities suggest that the passage of the ADA has been insufficient to achieve economic parity for disabled workers.

Union membership offers a potential way to narrow the gap. People with disabilities benefit from union membership in several key respects. Chief among them is an especially high union wage premium for people with disabilities. Wage premiums associated with union membership have been demonstrated for workers in general, with larger premiums for Black workers, low-wage workers, and women. However, the union wage bump is especially pronounced for workers with disabilities. 

A study by Pettinicchio and Maroto found that the union effect on weekly earnings of workers with disabilities was twice that for workers without disabilities. Disabled union members saw, on average, a 28 percent increase in earnings compared to nonunion workers with disabilities. The increase was closer to 35 percent for workers with independent living limitations. The authors also found that the union wage premium for workers with disabilities was significantly larger than the unionized-nonunionized earnings gap among women, Black, or Hispanic workers. 

A study by Ameri et al. found a union wage premium of 29.8 percent for workers with disabilities (Figure 1), compared to a 23.9 percent premium for workers without disabilities. While access to union jobs is somewhat mediated by industry, part-time and full-time classification, and other structural and organizational factors, these results are nevertheless striking. Moreover, while there is some variation in union density by type of disability, on average, workers with disabilities are nearly as likely as workers without disabilities to be union members (Table 1). In light of the previously mentioned studies, increasing union density overall could be particularly beneficial for disabled workers.

Figure 1

Table 1: Just Over One-in-Ten Disabled Workers Under Age 65 are Union Members
  Share of Employed Union Members by Disability
Not Disabled 10.6%
One or More Disabilities 10.4%
Two or More Disabilities 9.6%
Ambulatory only 12.6%
Cognitive only 8.1%
Hearing only 12.8%
Vision only 7.9%

Source: Authors’ analysis of Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group, 2020-2021. Includes employed wage and salary workers ages 16-64.

Workers with disabilities may also stand to gain from union membership in other ways. The protections enshrined into law by the ADA become hollow if not enforced, and reports suggest that they are regularly flouted. Unions act as a source of employer accountability and may provide an additional enforcement mechanism, ensuring that these hard-won legal protections become a reality. Specifically, unions can help enforce ADA provisions and ensure that accommodation needs that might otherwise go ignored are met in accordance with both the law and collective bargaining agreements (CBAs). Unions are required to duly represent members in disputes, and they provide a structure that allows employees to have issues addressed without personally incurring costly legal expenses. Unions can also assist with workers’ compensation claims, offer emotional support, uphold contact with workers who are away and rehabilitating, offer guidance to employers about the ADA, and take other actions to lessen employer animosity that is produced when there are disruptions to the existing state of affairs. 

In the process of providing the type of assistance noted above, unions can also help normalize seeking and receiving accommodations. Unions are workplace actors that can integrate and institutionalize disability concerns. An analysis of 72 arbitration cases by Williams-Whitt concluded that “unions may have a particularly influential role to play by nudging collective beliefs and norms about accommodation.” Unions can reduce the stigma surrounding requesting and receiving workplace accommodations. Workplaces where employers are more attentive to accommodation needs and where accommodations are more commonplace allow workers with disabilities to avoid appearing to receive special treatment for requesting what they need to be able to effectively do their jobs.

Unions and CBAs give workers access to important resources, opportunities, and rewards. While there have been instances in the past of accommodation needs conflicting with CBA-established hierarchies, these obstacles can be addressed by centering the needs of disabled workers during both bargaining and enforcement. Unions can even reframe such accommodations as universal benefits for all staff. Flexible work schedules, for example, can benefit and raise productivity for people with and without chronic illnesses. During the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work opportunities proved popular among workers with and without disabilities, and the sudden increase in their availability exposed how much more flexible employers could have been before the pandemic with regard to accommodations. 

Unions have traditionally been noted to benefit workers whose onset of disability occurs during the course of their union employment. They have admittedly less power to address hiring discrimination, and some argue that employers might be reluctant to hire people with disabilities for union jobs. However, while hiring practices are not generally a mandatory bargaining subject, they can become so where there is good reason to believe that the hiring practices are discriminatory. Disability status is a protected class, and institutional discrimination against workers with disabilities affects the terms and conditions of employment for current employees. 

To the extent that discrimination against people with disabilities is not addressed at the point of recruitment, strengthened links between unions and groups that support individuals with disabilities can help shed light on discriminatory hiring practices and improve responsiveness to the needs of disabled workers. For example, the Disability Champions program in the UK has improved union sensitivity toward people with disabilities, facilitating more successful representation of disabled members and would-be members. The success of this program illustrates the way partnerships between disability activists and unions can help ingrain disability concerns to make organizations more more inclusive. 

While the benefits of union membership for people with disabilities are clear, low union density means that they are not available to most workers with or without disabilities. Policies that ease obstacles to union membership, such as the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, would help in this regard. This legislation would prohibit some of the underhanded tactics employers use to interfere with union organizing and impose harsher penalties for retaliation and other violations of workers’ rights. Additionally, increased support for enforcement of existing labor protections would also be advantageous. It is remarkable what the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has accomplished with limited resources, and with Jennifer Abruzzo as general counsel, they have been instrumental in supporting this year’s upswell in union organizing. However, the agency could be that much more effective in fulfilling their mission if they received adequate funding.

Finally, the labor movement itself must live up to the commitments it has voiced. Organized labor has clashed with the disability community in the past, particularly with regard to deinstitutionalization. Research has shown that people with disabilities enjoy substantially improved quality of life in community settings compared to institutional ones. Yet public employee unions, for example, rallied against the closure of Polk Center, one of Pennsylvania’s last state residential homes for people with disabilities. If the labor movement is to be an effective champion for the rights of disabled people, it must consistently stand with them on issues that affect their welfare and inclusion in society. While commitment from organized labor — including a resolution from the AFL-CIO — to center people with disabilities is encouraging, affiliates must supplement these assurances with action.

Unions provide many benefits for workers, and studies suggest that these benefits are especially salient for disabled workers. Union membership has been shown to act as a mechanism for addressing earnings inequality, improving access to accommodations, and allowing workers to exercise more agency on the job. For this strategy to bear fruit, however, more must be done to both increase union density and to center workers with disabilities at the negotiating table and beyond.

* The table and figure in this piece were also featured in CEPR’s Disability and Economic Justice Chartbook.

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