How to support employees with disabilities during COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic is having a harsh impact on adults with disabilities, putting more pressure on employers to adopt better benefits and policies to support staff with special needs.

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities was at 80% in 2019, according to the U.S. Labor Bureau of Statistics. Since the pandemic began in March, 1 in 5 workers with disabilities lost their jobs versus 1 in 7 of their able-bodied peers. Nearly one million jobs have been lost in the disabled community.

“The pandemic has really impacted the disability community much, much more than their able-bodied peers,” says Jessica Tuman, vice president of Voya Cares at Voya Financial. “This is a population that's already marginalized. They're often the first to be laid off, furloughed or forced to stop working because many people with disabilities have health implications, so they're more at risk of contracting COVID-19.”

As a result of the pandemic, those in the special needs community also report experiencing increased anxiety, feelings of isolation or loneliness and disruption in care or limited access to healthcare and specialty care, a recent Voya Care report finds. Additionally, there is a higher level of financial concern around their economic well-being. As a result of COVID-19, members of the special needs community are evaluating their short-term expenses, assessing current assets and relying on savings to accommodate their needs, she says.

The COVID-19 crisis is not only impacting people with disabilities and special needs, but also caregivers.

“Caregivers are also supporting their loved ones who might have a disability at home, maybe a child with a disability or an aging parent at home,” Tuman says. “All of this is compounded by COVID-19.“

Benefits decision makers surveyed by Voya showed a lack of awareness of the increasing numbers of caregivers and people with disabilities and special needs in their workplace. As a result, some employers are not meeting their unique benefits needs, potentially resulting in valued employees leaving their company and increased turnover costs.

From manager training to personalized benefits, here are four things employers can do to foster an inclusive work culture and support employees with disabilities and special needs during the coronavirus pandemic.

Provide accommodation
Once an employer hires people with disabilities, they must support and enable them with the proper equipment and accessible tools to do their jobs, Tuman says.

“There is a huge misconception among employers that the cost of providing accommodation to people who have disabilities in the workplace is prohibitive, that the cost of providing it is a huge challenge,” she says. “But that is truly not the case.”

A job accommodation is an adjustment to a job or work environment that makes it possible for an employee with a disability to perform their job duties. This may include specialized equipment, modifications to the work environment or adjustments to work schedules or responsibilities. The median cost is about $500 and in some cases accommodation is also a one-time cost, Tuman says.

“HR has this misconception that they need to provide these very expensive tools and resources," she says. "But the reality is that it's actually very inexpensive, mostly nothing.”
Manager and employee training
In hiring and recruitment efforts, having a disability education program is a key factor in ensuring that special needs are seen and met in the workplace, Tuman says. One of the things that Voya is doing to support the community is to provide managers with training.

“We have a number of people in our workforce who have disabilities, and they self-disclosed or self-identified their disability to their manager. But the manager is often not aware of how to make sure that they are accommodating of that disability, or that they are providing the right environment,” she says. “So training is something that is very, very important.”

Companies should also empower their employees by offering mentoring and coaching initiatives to build on the skills that they have, as well as re-skilling programs.
Financial resources
As living with a disability often can mean significant amounts of extra costs, employers should consider providing financial benefits and resources. One way to do that is to encourage individuals and families to contribute to so-called Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) accounts — tax-advantaged savings accounts that can fund disability expenses.

“It allows for people that have disabilities to save for anything, including retirement, without losing access to their government benefits,” Tuman says. “ABLE accounts were actually groundbreaking when they rolled out a couple of years ago. It's one of the best ways to save. Employees can also use an ABLE account to save for their children if they have a disability, and other family members can contribute to the overall account.”
Inclusive benefit offerings
When Voya began its disability inclusion offerings about five years ago, one of the things the company did was to get an overview of its entire spectrum of benefits, Tuman says. Voya had about 70 employee benefits, and looked through each one to figure out if the benefit was applicable in a disability situation. The company found that about 25 of the employee benefits and policies supported the disability community in its workforce.

“We found that there was a surprising number of employee benefits that could be applied to this workforce,” Tuman says. “So we promoted these benefits and policies to raise awareness, and to elevate them to a level where employees realize what disability or caregiver benefits are available to them.”

With 1 in 5 Americans in the workplace being caregivers, many employees are spending a lot of time outside work to take care of a loved one at home.

“If you are in an acute situation like the current crisis where we saw aging parents in care homes or nursing homes being exposed to COVID-19, many people had to bring those parents into their house with very short notice,” Tuman says.

From an AI-driven mobile app to check-in on family members to a support platform, there are a range of benefits aimed to help employees balance work with primary care responsibilities.