Help My Career: ‘I can no longer be an executive at a high level’:  Workers with disabilities, including long COVID, are finding their place as companies become more flexible

Help My Career: ‘I can no longer be an executive at a high level’: Workers with disabilities, including long COVID, are finding their place as companies become more flexible

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Dana Pollard started a new job at the end of 2022, after spending three years recovering from a 2019 stroke.

Pollard, 56, lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with his wife. After the stroke, he could not recognize her. He couldn’t remember things, and one side of his body was partially paralyzed.

After months of physical and speech therapy, and with the help of medication, Pollard’s condition stabilized. His doctors told him that severe stress could still cause seizures, but Pollard has been managing well.

Before the stroke, Pollard managed about 6,000 employees as a director of canvassing. In his new position as a canvassing manager at Tarrant Windows and Siding, he oversees 10 to 15 people who go door to door to advertise and sell the company’s products and services. His day-to-day responsibilities include hiring and training canvassers, as well as a bit of walking now and then. 

‘A lot of places, they don’t have the facility to help people with disabilities go back to work, and they don’t have the educational tools.’

The responsibility and physical work required are far less than what his old job demanded, but Pollard said that his new position is suitable given his condition and will be good for his recovery.

“I can no longer be an executive at a high level. I just can’t think that fast anymore,” Pollard said. “I’m just not that person anymore, not yet.” 

His experience and reputation in the industry helped him land the job, but Pollard said getting hired was still a lengthy process.

“A lot of places, they don’t have the facility to help people with disabilities go back to work, and they don’t have the educational tools. They don’t have the capabilities for disabled people to actually work in their facilities,” Pollard told MarketWatch.

“I just happen to be qualified for this job because of my background, but I couldn’t be hired for the job that I used to have,” he added.

Dana Pollard, 56, returned to work after recovering from a stroke.


Courtesy of Dana Pollard

Unemployment is high for workers with a disability

Many people with disabilities face serious difficulties finding work. The unemployment rate for people with a disability was 6% in November — down from 10.8% in 2021, but still higher than the rate of 3.3% for those who do not have a disability, according to government data.

The COVID-19 pandemic was itself a disabling event. An estimated one in five people infected with COVID-19 experience long-term effects, known as long COVID, experts from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said, citing data analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Estimates of long COVID’s prevalence vary, the CDC notes; symptoms also vary in severity and can include difficulty breathing, fatigue that interferes with daily life and brain fog. 

Around 15 million Americans of working age will deal with the effects of long COVID at some point, and 1.8 million of those will be unable to work, according to estimates from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. Among COVID long-haulers, 26% said their condition had negatively affected their employment or the number of hours they were able to work, according to a separate report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in July.

But the pandemic has also made employers more flexible and more inclusive, pushing them to better adapt to the needs of workers who have long COVID or other disabilities, experts said.

So could 2023 be the year that more people with disabilities land jobs? 

It’s a myth that workers with disabilities, in particular those enrolled in the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, don’t want to be in the workforce, said Diane Winiarski, director of Allsup Employment Services.

“They absolutely do want to return to work. They want to be given the opportunity,” she told MarketWatch.

Inflation squeezes people with chronic conditions

SSDI and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are two Social Security programs that provide financial support to people with health conditions that prevent them from being able to work. SSDI is for those who have worked before, with monthly benefits based on a person’s previous income, whereas SSI doesn’t require previous work experience.

Such health conditions include chronic illnesses, including long COVID. The Social Security Administration’s annual cost-of-living adjustments track changes in consumer prices from year to year.

For those who receive SSDI or SSI benefits, an 8.7% increase was applied to monthly benefits starting Jan 1. This increase means the average monthly SSDI benefit for a worker with a disability will increase by $119 to $1,483, according to the Social Security Administration.

But for many people, that support barely covers living expenses. That’s especially true for those who need to pay for medications, caregivers and transportation to doctor visits, said Terry Wilcox, CEO of Patients Rising, a group that advocates on behalf of people with chronic illnesses. 

Many people with chronic conditions cannot take on side hustles or extra hours due to physical strength limitations, Wilcox added. As a result, they have limited disposable income to cover price increases on necessities like groceries and gas. 

“Anyone who knows anything about SSDI knows it’s not what most of us would consider a livable wage,” Wilcox said.

Inflation in the U.S. reached a 40-year high last June and has squeezed Americans’ budgets. The year-over-year increase in the cost of living has shown some signs of cooling, but it was still 7.1% in November compared with the previous year. In October, several low-income families told MarketWatch that they could not afford to buy meat, while others said they had to juggle utility payments and grocery bills.

Remote work has helped make workplaces more inclusive

As a result of the pandemic, workplaces have become more flexible and, in some ways, more inclusive of workers who were not able to work in an office before the pandemic, according to recent research by the Kessler Foundation, a research and charitable organization for people with disabilities.

“The COVID-19 pandemic positively impacted the use of disability-related employment practices by focusing greater attention on accommodation processes and increasing the use of remote work, flexible work schedules and job sharing,” said survey co-author Andrew Houtenville, an economics professor and research director at the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability.

While all workers benefited from the expansion of flexible work arrangements, many of those changes have been especially important to employees with disabilities, he said.

In 2023, the labor market will remain tight, according to the recent Hiring and Workplace Trends report by Indeed and Glassdoor. Employers have been turning to sometimes-overlooked pools of workers, including people with disabilities or people with criminal records, and will need to do more to accommodate these workers by adopting flexible work policies, the report said.

Winiarski recommends that employers test the waters, perhaps reassigning workers to different duties or dividing up nonessential roles. “We encourage part-time work — and then gradually increasing the hours,” she said.

Support for finding a job makes all the difference

When it comes to finding jobs, workers with disabilities face a variety of challenges, Winiarski said. But for those on SSDI, the first challenge is often in overcoming fear and helplessness, she added.

Two years after his stroke, Pollard wanted to go back to work, but he didn’t know how. At the time, he was still using a cane and his cognitive abilities, although slowly improving, were not back to normal, so he wanted to take “baby steps.” 

Pollard signed up to work with a company that helps people like him find jobs. Yet for a year and a half, he didn’t get the support he was looking for.

“They had no idea of how to help me,” Pollard said about the company. They would propose “the most ridiculous jobs that I could never have done — general labor where I would have to wear a hard hat and [carry a] welder and I’m, like, really? There’s no way I could do any of these jobs,” he said.

He eventually landed his current job after working with Allsup Employment Services, which specializes in helping people with disabilities return to work. Allsup works through Social Security’s Ticket to Work, a free program for people who are receiving disability benefits. 

At Allsup, Pollard was assigned to a case manager who provided guidance and helped him prepare for interviews. The manager also worked with him to identify roles that suited him. He and his case manager, Pollard said, were a “dynamic duo.”

Pollard said that when it came to finding a job, it made all the difference to have people who seemed to understand what he was going through. “They actually listen,” he said. “They listen to your story.”

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