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Not enough workers, too many jobs. That’s the story for many industries in western Massachusetts and around the country. Why is that and what can be done? How is the shortage of workers affecting our economy? The NEPM newsroom and The Fabulous 413 are looking for answers.

Despite labor shortage in Massachusetts, employment disparity remains for people with disabilities

A sign outside Synergy, in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts, informs those passing by that the store is accepting resumes.
Sam Hudzik
A sign outside Synergy, in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts, informs those passing by that the store is accepting resumes.

Despite this current era of labor shortages, there's one community that continues to get overlooked when it comes to hiring: persons with disabilities.

Labor statistics have and continue to show persistent and significant disparities in worker employment and participation when it comes to this segment of the U.S. population.

For our series Short-Staffed: How western Mass. is tackling workforce shortages, we spoke with Kathy Petkauskos. who leads the recently established Disability Employment Subcommittee for the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Persons with Disabilities.

Petkauskos said workers with disabilities can play an important role in filling available positions.

Kathy Petkauskos: The unemployment rate for people with disabilities in our country and in our state is about two to two-and-a-half-times higher than that of persons without disabilities. And the labor force participation rate for people with disabilities compared to those without disabilities is typically about a 40% gap.

Kari, Njiiri, NEPM: Have employers ignored persons with disabilities in their diversity-hiring efforts?

Petkauskos: I think due to, you know, maybe some misconceptions and fears, you know, maybe years ago, employers have ignored this population as a potential pool of talent. However, certainly in recent years, we've definitely seen an increase in employer engagement, education and awareness — where they are fully realizing the potential and the skills and the value that people with disabilities add to their workplaces.

What are the barriers that persons with disabilities say they face when it comes to employment opportunities, and are they relatable to the so-called glass ceiling that women have historically faced?

Petkauskos: Potentially. So, in that regard, I would say as far as maybe stereotyping, misperceptions of what a person with a disability can do in the workplace, could certainly be likened to maybe how women have been viewed in the past and maybe continue to be viewed, as well as other demographics as well.

I think it's possible that people with disabilities may have some additional challenges when it comes to employment. Oftentimes, people with disabilities are transportation-disadvantaged.

Another challenge is oftentimes people with disabilities, because they're not working, are receiving benefits from the government. They fear or don't understand how those benefits will be affected once they start working and earning money. So fear of losing those benefits, which is their financial stability. It may not be much and not as much as they could get from working potentially, but it is what they have. And so they fear, if they start working, "What's going to happen to those benefits? Am I going to be able to survive? Am I going to be able to support my family?”

Imene Bouziane Saidi, executive director for the Commission on the Status of Persons with Disabilities: And, if I may add, another barrier that has been coming back a lot is, since the pandemic, remote working had been made available. Now, with employers asking their employees to come back in-person, that has increasingly become a barrier for those who were able to gain employment during the pandemic and/or folks who are still wanting to retain remote working as an option.

Petkauskos: And a message we would love to convey to employers is to remember that working from home, remote work, telecommuting, whatever you want to call it, can be certainly seen as an accommodation for a person with disabilities. As a matter of fact, it's something that the disability community has advocated for for decades, long before the pandemic.

So, in order to continue to recruit talent from this labor pool, but also to retain employees, employers — we suggest — keep in mind that providing a hybrid or remote work opportunity could make the difference for somebody with a disability to be in the workforce or not.

Petkauskos says the Disability Employment Subcommittee plans to produce a video this year involving various-sized businesses. It aims to bring more awareness to the benefits of hiring these workers.

Petkauskos: People with disabilities make good employees. There's research and studies that show that, and there's a lot of information from employers who hire people with disabilities that that is true.

So, we'd like to employ a business-to-business model to get those businesses that have had success in this area and share how they did it, what their challenges were, what their successes were, what the value is to their company.

Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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