The recession associated with the pandemic is likely to be having a disproportionate impact on disabled employees, just as it did in the last recession, according to academics.
They have examined the impact on disabled people during the recession of 2007 to 2009, and believe it is set to be repeated during the coronavirus recession.
They believe that – just as with the last recession – disabled employees might experience a disproportionate impact through experiencing increased workloads, wage freezes, and restricted access to overtime and training.
The conclusions have come from academics from Cardiff, Warwick and Cass Business Schools – professors Nick Bacon, Kim Hoque, Victoria Wass and Melanie Jones – who form the Disability@Work group of researchers.
It is too early to assess whether there has been a disproportionate negative impact on the employment of disabled people, they say, although early research by the charity Citizens Advice, based on inquiries it has received about redundancy, suggests this could already be happening.
Their research shows that, during the last recession, disabled employees were significantly more likely than non-disabled staff to report increased workloads (36 per cent of disabled employees compared to 28 per cent of non-disabled employees), a wage freeze or cut (37 per cent compared to 32 per cent), and restricted access to paid overtime (23 per cent compared to 18 per cent) and training (15 per cent compared to 12 per cent).
They believe this led to widened disability pay gaps, and wider job satisfaction gaps.
Even allowing for the concentration of disabled people in jobs more heavily affected by the recession, their findings still held up.
They conclude, in a briefing note (PDF): “The results are therefore consistent with the argument that disabled people face unequal treatment from employers during recessions, and that organisational responses to downturns affecting employment terms and conditions form an important source of inequality at work.”
They call for both employers and the government to take action.
Among their recommendations, they say the government should monitor disability pay gaps and disability job satisfaction gaps, and that it should analyse the impact of policies such as the furlough scheme on disabled people.
And they call for the government to support self-employed disabled people, introduce mandatory reporting on disability employment for large firms, and increase funding and promotion of the Access to Work scheme.
Their research has been shared with the government’s Disability Unit, which is working on a new, much-delayed national disability strategy, which is due to be published next spring.
They also say that employers should measure how many of their staff are disabled – encouraging staff to disclose this information – and monitor the impact of changes they make to working practices as a result of the pandemic.
And they say employers should also ensure disabled staff working from home are adequately supported, and retain and support employees who are the most “clinically vulnerable” to COVID-19.
Victoria Wass and Melanie Jones, from Cardiff Business School, told Disability News Service: “Given the economic impact of COVID-19 is likely to be pronounced and more persistent than expected, it is even more critical that the government responds rapidly to our evidence.
“Otherwise there is a clear risk that disabled people, who are some of the most disadvantaged in society, will face increased absolute and relative economic disadvantage.”
Bacon and Hoque have also called repeatedly (PDF) for the government to scrap its much-criticised Disability Confident employment scheme and replace it with a new programme based on how employers actually perform on disability employment rather than the promises they make when they sign up to Disability Confident.
And they say that trade unions must be supported to do more to represent disabled workers and highlight their workplace support needs.
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, said: “Disabled employees and those seeking work, are undoubtedly being hit hard by the recession caused by the coronavirus crisis.
“Yet we have seen two government employment programmes announced with no additional measures in place to support disabled job-seekers.
“The eligibility criteria for these schemes would stop some disabled people having access to them.
“There are no plans to ensure that new work coaches and careers advisers have disability expertise. The Access to Work scheme remains painfully slow.
“We support calls for mandatory monitoring of the numbers of disabled people in the workforce, their satisfaction levels, and the disability pay gap.
“We need to expose discrimination within the workforce and require employers to tackle it.”
Vicky Foxcroft, shadow minister for disabled people, said: “Throughout the pandemic, disabled people have felt like an afterthought.
“The government must put safeguards in place to ensure that disabled and clinically vulnerable people are protected in the workplace from disproportionate job losses.
“Ministers must urgently act to ensure disabled workers do not bear the brunt of redundancies in this jobs crisis.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “Before this pandemic the number of disabled people in work had increased to over four million and as we begin to rebuild, our continued support for disabled people will not be diminished.
“Through our Plan for Jobs and tailored schemes like Access to Work we will continue to support disabled people to find, retain and remain in work to help unlock their full potential.”
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