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Competitive Integrated Employment Programs May Offset Pandemic Impact on Some Workers with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

A study funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and its impact on society is well documented. In addition to the public health impact, the pandemic-related economic shutdown led to a recession by June 2020. Little is known about the effects of the pandemic on people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) working in competitive integrated employment. These are employees with IDD working along-side people without these disabilities and earning a competitive wage. Researchers in a recent NIDILRR-funded study sought to explore the impact of the pandemic on people with IDD who were competitively employed in an integrated setting. Specifically, the researchers were interested in whether there were differences in employment status, hours worked, or wages earned for individuals with IDD during the time period of February and July 2020 and the same period in 2019. Researchers were also interested in whether the pandemic’s impact on employment status of people with IDD varied based on individual traits (e.g. age, gender, race, work sector, or disability type).

Researchers from the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Employment of People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities reviewed the employment records of people with IDD who were receiving either job site training or long-term support services through the Business Connections employment services program. All study participants had an IDD and worked in competitive integrated employment as of February 28, 2019 or February 28, 2020.

The researchers looked at data for program participants grouped in two time periods: February to July 2019 and February to July 2020. Each group had 156 participants, with 133 individuals included in both groups. The two groups had similar demographics: They were in their mid-twenties; just under half identified as Black, indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC); and most were employed in either healthcare, food services, retail, or hospitality. A smaller number were employed in industries such as entertainment, information technology, or supply and distribution. The majority of participants reported autism or intellectual disabilities, with less than 15% reporting other disabilities such as learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, or hearing impairment. More than half of the participants received some form of disability benefits. When the researchers compared employment data for the two groups, overall they found that:

  • Of those employed in February 2019, the average hourly pay rate was $9.88. These individuals worked an average of about 82 hours per month. By July 2019, 135 of 156 were still employed, with seasonal furloughs or layoffs accounting for unemployment.
  • Of those employed in February 2020, the average hourly pay rate was $10.21. These individuals worked an average of about 86 hours per month. By July 2020, 92 of 156 were still employed, with COVID-related layoffs or furloughs accounting for the majority of unemployment.

To determine the impact of COVID-19 on employment, the researchers compared employment status, wages earned, and hours worked for each month between February and July 2020. Employment status included working on site, COVID furlough, seasonal furlough, laid off, or ill or quarantined due to COVID. They found that:

  • The number of people working on site dropped from 156 in February to 65 in April. Of those who were not working, 83 were furloughed because of COVID-related closures, 6 were laid off, and 1 was out for illness or quarantine.
  • The number of employees working on site increased in May, June, and July so that more than half were back to working on site. The number of COVID-related furloughs decreased steadily as well, but still accounted for the majority of those not working.
  • Wages increased slightly for those working through the pandemic, from $10.21 to $10.91 per hour. However, the majority of those not working received no pay or work-related benefits. Less than 25% of those who were furloughed or laid off received unemployment benefits or pay through the Paycheck Protection Program.
  • Average hours worked per month dropped by nearly 20% from February to March and almost 50% by April to about 45 hours. The average hours worked increased from May through July, but by the end of July was still more than 30% lower than in February, or about 62 hours on average.

While most workers in this group lost some work hours, those in entertainment, retail, and food service were more severely impacted, dropping to as low as 0 hours worked in April. However, the researchers also found that the participants who were able to continue working on-site during that time, primarily in health care and supply and distribution, appeared to have little change to their hourly wage or number of hours worked. In fact, both hourly wage and number of hours worked appeared to have slightly increased for some workers.

Finally, the researchers found that age, gender, race, or primary disability did not seem to impact the participants’ work status in either 2019 or 2020. However, a noteworthy exception was race. Specifically, the BIPOC employees with IDD averaged more hours worked per month than the white employees with IDD. However, this may not be related to the pandemic, as these findings were consistent in 2019 and 2020.

The authors noted that the pandemic led to most of the participants having their employment interrupted at some point between February and July 2020. None of the participants were able to work from home, as was recommended by local health authorities as a way to control the spread of the coronavirus. A small number were unemployed due to seasonal layoffs, consistent with the 2019 group. Very few were out of work due to illness or quarantine required by possible exposure to COVID-19.

The authors noted that, historically, people with IDD have faced negative stereotypes about their ability to work full time in integrated settings. Most employees with IDD in this program continued to work throughout the COVID crisis or returned to work quickly when given the opportunity to do so. By June, more than half had returned to their workplaces, demonstrating resilience that may help dispel negative assumptions about the long-term employability and earning potential of people with these disabilities, including those from minority communities. However, some fields may be more susceptible to the negative impacts of emergencies or recession. People with IDD may benefit from pathways to employment in fields that are more “recession proof” such as health care. The authors also noted that few program participants accessed unemployment benefits, although many received support through other benefit programs. Researchers may wish to examine whether education and advocacy may help employees with IDD who are laid off or furloughed access additional financial supports.

To Learn More

The RRTC on Employment of Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities offers a library of resources to learn about competitive, integrated employment of people with IDD including project briefs on meaningful work, barriers to employment, and supporting integrated employment pursuits.

This research was the focus of a recent article in Style Weekly magazine in Richmond, VA, where the Business Connections program is located. Researcher Valerie Brooke noted that many of the employees from the program were essential workers providing the community with a service. Meet one employee and hear more about this program in Career opportunities: How the pandemic is changing job futures for people with disabilities.

To Learn More About this Study

Schall, C., Brooke, V., Rounds, R., and Lynch, A. (2021) The resiliency of employees with intellectual and developmental disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown: A retrospective review of employment files. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 54 (2021). This article is available from the NARIC collection under Accession Number J85657 and in full text from the publisher.

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