Workers with disabilities are especially hard hit in the coronavirus economy


Danny Engel, a CVS worker, and Angela Schub, a Stop & Shop worker. Both employees have disabilities and have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Danny Engel lost his independence after the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Engel, who has epilepsy, normally works part-time at CVS in Bedford Hills, New York, during the week and lives in his own apartment in a supported living program. He receives help for daily tasks, such as cleaning his apartment and grocery shopping.

But when the shutdown started, the support staff at his apartment said they would not be able to provide any direct help to him.

Engel, 31, moved in with his parents and also had to reduce his hours at CVS at the advice of his doctor so that he is exposed to fewer people during his shift.

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted employees across a host of industries to leave jobs, relocate and uproot their lives in other ways.The turmoil has been especially hard on people with disabilities, many of whom are employed in the retail industry, advocates and employment service providers say. It can be harder for Americans with a disability to find work as opportunities dry up, and they may have more trouble living independently.

For many workers with disabilitiesthe pandemic has meant relying on their families more for additional support. Engel is frustrated about working fewer hours than he normally is able to at CVS and not being able to interact with customers.

“I’d like to get back in the old routine,” he said.

Added his parents, Mike and Marion: “From a longer term perspective, this is not a good situation for Danny to continue to grow as independent as possible either.”

Challenges in retail

Around 1.2 million workers with disabilities worked in retail in 2018, according to the most recent data from the Census Bureau.

During the pandemic, employees with disabilities are doing essential work, but they are “struggling with navigating the various changes to processes and policies that are being implemented,” said Julie Christensen, director of policy and advocacy for the Association of People Supporting Employment First.

For many Americans with intellectual or developmental disabilities, working in a grocery store or drugstoreis an “ideal job,” said Cheryl Bates-Harris, senior disability advocacy specialist at the National Disability Rights Network.

The job provides independence and social interaction with customers and coworkers. It’s often workers’ first spending money. The repetition of stocking shelves, cleaning floors, bagging groceries, greeting customers and other responsibilities in stores are “tasks they can learn and master,” Bates-Harris said.

But for grocery workers who are hard of hearing and rely on lip reading, the pandemic has made it impossible to communicate with masked shoppers.

“I rely on lip reading to sort of fill in the blanks when I’m carrying on a conversation with someone, With everyone wearing masks, I suddenly can’t lip-read anymore, and I’m completely lost,” said Matt Dacey, who works at Kroger in Lexington, Kentucky, and is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. “Everything around me is just noise, and none of it makes any sense. The mental fatigue that results is pretty severe.”

Many employees with disabilities have sensory conditions, so wearing gloves and masks can be challenging. Some workers face challenges identifying social distances in stores.

The coronavirus prompted Angela Schub, who has worked as a bagger at Stop & Shop in Long Island, New York, and has an intellectual disability, to take a leave of absence from work.

“I love working with my friends and my coworkers,” said Schub, who has held the job for 12 years. “I’m a social butterfly.”

Schub, 34, said her parents worried she would struggle to understand social distancing requirements at the store.

The virus has upended her life in other ways, too. She can’t drive and has been unable to see her fiancee, who also lives with his parents, because both families worry it’s too much of a risk. She also can’t see her job coach, she said.

Support system

Advocates fear that the crisis will make it even harder for workers with disabilities who took voluntary leaves during the pandemic or were laid off to find work. They say these workers may have difficulty re-entering the workforce because of a weakened support structure around them.

And with millions of Americans joining unemployment rolls during the pandemic, workers with disabilities will face increased competition to find jobs.

A “major concern” is “ensuring that the employment supports system remains intact so people with disabilities are not further left behind as we reboot the economy,” said Christensen from the Association of People Supporting Employment First.

At Washington Vocational Services, a group that helps people with disabilities find jobs, around 87% of workers the organization has previously placed into jobs have had to take leave from work during the pandemic, even though a high percentage work in grocery and retail. In many cases, these employees can’t work because they live in supervised living situations and can’t risk catching the virus at work and spreading it to their housemates, said the organization’s executive director Janet Bruckshen.

One of these workers, Sean Curtis, an employee at PCC Community Markets in Edmonds, Washington with an intellectual disability, had to take off work because he lives in a residential home with five other people with disabilities and could risk spreading the virus to them.

“It makes me upset that I’m not there right with my coworkers,” he said. Curtis has used up all of his paid time off at the store, so he’s “running low on money” right now and has to rely on his disability benefits.

Many employees with disabilities also work closely with job coaches and employment service providers that place workers with disabilities into specialized positions. But such companies have experienced layoffs and furloughs during the crisis.

“We’re seeing providers laying off 60% to 75% of direct support professionals because of cash flow concerns,” said Christensen from Association of People Supporting Employment First. “These workers may not be getting the vital supports they need to adapt to changes and continue to be successful on the job.”

Social distancing has also many prevented workers and job coaches meeting face to face at work.

“It’s really hard. The job coach is supposed to observe you and give you pointers,” said Engel, the CVS employee.

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