Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Last to get hired, first to get fired: workers with disabilities in the recession

I ran into a friend with a disability a few weeks ago and we were talking about the unemployment situation in our country. He told me that Americans who are now unemployed and taking jobs that pay less are dealing with some situations those of us with disabilities have encountered for years.

We were remembering a friend of ours with a disability, for example, who was being paid $23,000 a year at a job when the going salary was $40,000. We have other friends who work at jobs that pay considerably less and have for many years prior to the current economic situation, having to take part time employment due to employers' fears about having to take on the costs of accommodation. This is despite studies that show the actual average cost to be very low.

Of course, my friend noted, with the unemployment rate of people with disabilities so staggeringly high, many of them don't have jobs to lose. For those who do and rely on income to support their disabilities, loss of their job or even a cutback of hours may force them to turn to programs they never had to consider before. This is an important thing to keep in mind when dealing with the country's largest minority - approximately 20 per cent of Americans are disabled and many want to work.

Last to get hired, first to get fired, were the words my friend used. And no doubt this recession is hitting those with disabilities harder on the employment front*.

The reality is that, in many instances, services and even jobs for the disabled are getting cut first. For example, 3M cut outsourcing work for those with developmental disabilities at a sheltered workshop so they could save jobs at the plant for workers. And there is a ripple effect to that.

Any number of layoffs at the sheltered workshop would create a communitywide “ripple effect,” Young said. CMSE works closely with Columbia Public Schools, helping students with disabilities transition into adulthood and learning job skills. But the current waiting list for new employees already is 30 deep, and five or six of those are former workers who gained traditional jobs but were laid off when budget axes fell.

“Usually when the economy's bad like this, they're the first to get laid off,” he said.

Community and social service agencies — and taxpayers — will feel the pinch of providing day programs and increased funding for other services if the sheltered workshop is unable to maintain at least its current level of employment, Young said.

Those running the workshop were quick to point out that they didn't want to blame 3M, but it's also important to recognize that those who work in the field agree that those with disabilities are the "last to get hired, first to get fired" - and that this approach results in an increasing demand on other resources, turning those who managed to achieve a level of independence into those who are dependent. It is these areas we need to include in a dialogue for our country as we all try to heal from the current economic downturn.

*For example, only 21 percent of the available working disabled population is employed, compared with the 65 percent of nondisabled workers.

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