“The pandemic is over,” President Biden declared this week on 60 Minutes, a statement that’s already generated its fair share of controversy. While critics argued that 400 deaths a day does not a pandemic end (and Biden did add that Covid is still indeed a problem), the truth is that if you look at all the maskless faces on mass transit and around the conference table, America really is trying to look like it’s as business as usual.
Unless you’re one of 61 million adults in the US with a disability.
While researchers are still collecting data to understand just how the pandemic has affected disabled workers, a fuller picture is now starting to emerge. People with disabilities—a population that includes an estimated one in four Americans—grew their overall participation in the workforce between March 2020 and the spring of this year, thanks to a tighter labor market and more remote options in the pandemic. In some markets, though, unemployment among disabled workers increased during the pandemic, and it remains significantly higher than for the general population.
All of this is playing out against an intensifying debate over the return to in-person work. Data show a post-Labor Day bump in the number of people working in the office: Office occupancy in 10 major US metro areas was 47.5% of early 2020 levels between Sept. 8 and Sept. 14, the highest since the end of March 2020, according to Kastle Systems, a company that tracks security swipes into buildings.
To better understand what it’s like to be a disabled person being told to get back to the office, I spoke with an executive at a large nonprofit organization, who feels caught between their disability and Covid fears and career advancement that seems contingent on facetime and in-person interaction.
This person, who has multiple sclerosis, spoke on condition of anonymity to share their experiences with their employer of six years. Here’s what they said about what they’re wrestling with, in their own words, edited for space and clarity.
I was diagnosed 30 years ago. For 25 of those 30 years, all of my symptoms have been not visible to people I don't live with. So it's not something I need to wear on my sleeve and say, ‘Hey! I have this, and you need to do this because of that.’ It's been very dormant. But my disability has changed over time. I feel like it has become more of a visible issue just in recent months and years. I need to use a cane to walk with on a regular basis.
I would not have called myself ‘disabled’ at the beginning of the pandemic. I just happened to use a cane. It was just a tool that I used and I could still get to where I needed to go. It wasn't a big deal.
Now I am cautious. I have not had Covid, and I have been in situations where everyone else has tested positive. I certainly have gotten all of my vaccines and typically am on the early side of getting any boosters. With so much that's unknown about MS, they don't really know what my progression will be.
The main issue I have with my employer accommodating me: I feel like it's saying one thing and doing another. They've made a big deal about, ‘You can ask somebody to put on a mask, if you feel like you would prefer that.’ But they are not required to do so. Where does that leave me?
In our office, I've noticed really small things but they add up. For instance, some of the doors to the office space are electronically locked, so they're really heavy to open. If you've ever tried to open a door and hold a cane, it just throws your balance off. Then I also can't carry a cup of coffee. Things as simple as that.
Otherwise, I don't mind going into the office. What frustrates me a ton is that in the office space we have, we can't get all the technology back to working so we can do all of the things we can do from home. For instance, we have to plug into an interface to display the meeting on the big screen, but we can't get that to work, so people do it on their phone or their laptop.
This new wave of trying to go in-person is so new, and I don't feel like we've gotten a hard-and-fast rule of what is expected. My personal boss has been incredibly flexible and very realistic. But I would say his opinion is not shared by many in the rest of the organization. The CEO, we don’t know what he’s thinking.
I would prefer to be more involved in the decision-making or being able to put forth an opinion. I think there was a survey, but I don't think there was a change, or the policies don't seem to reflect the survey results. It's just disappointing. If we're all trying to come together and work smarter together, then let's actually do that.
For the last six months it's been one day a month that you come into the office physically. It's meant to be a day when people in your department are also present, so it can be a team get-together, bonding, that kind of thing. The new policy that takes effect this month is definitely more frequently than that: You need to be in 20% of the time. That's about one day a week.
That's not a big deal to me. I can adapt. However, our office building has just announced that all daily parking has been eliminated and it's only monthly parking. This is hugely problematic for me, as I'll now have to walk much further to another parking garage. Even before this, parking was an issue for me. I decided that during Covid times I would pay the higher rate of the parking garage because I didn't want the hassle of parking further away and having to walk. It was like a Covid tax, of having to pay more for this convenience. For me, it's a ‘No, really, I need to do this.’
There is certainly not less work to be done. That's what I worry about: that there will still be things that will have to get done, and there aren’t enough safety valves if I say I have to peace out, and somebody else has to do this. I'm bringing on a brand new person and I have to get her trained. I need her to be capable of covering things if I'm not available.
It feels like being unaware of the impact Covid has on your employee's morale. I should hope not, after two years of working from home, but there is a healthy suspicion of what everyone does with their time. Which I think is pathetic.
It comes down to being told what you have to do to fulfill the expectations. We're at a point in Covid where it's, ‘You are taking a risk. But it's a calculated risk.’ I'm certainly willing to take that risk for my family and for important person-to-person contact. But for work, if I'm able to get my job accomplished without having to come into the office, I haven't figured out the gain to going in person. There has to be a benefit ratio there.