The NCSL Blog

13

By Rebecca Tyus

Public health precautions put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic caused the country to find itself in an economic recession that saw millions of jobs lost and unprecedented high unemployment rates. 

Two workers, one with disability, one notIn November 2020, the State Exchange on Employment & Disability (SEED) created the COVID-19 Policy Collaborative for an Inclusive Recovery to address the effects of the pandemic on employment for people with disabilities. This collaborative was composed of SEED’s partners, along with other key stakeholders and subject matter experts. 

Over the course of several months, these stakeholders and disability employment policy specialists participated in a series of virtual convenings, presentations, panel discussions and smaller breakout groups. These convenings looked at COVID-19's impact on the employment of those with disabilities and the federal, state and local responses to the pandemic. 

As one of SEED’s partners, NCSL provided policy expertise, legislative tracking, examples of state legislative efforts and helped facilitate meetings for the collaborative. The collaborative identified returning to the workplace, workforce retention and preparing for work as three broad areas for consideration. These areas were further reduced to five policy options: workplace safety and health, telework, vaccinations, mental health and workforce readiness.  

Returning to the Workplace  

Key elements of returning to the workplace include workplace safety and health and telework policies. A typical COVID-19 health and safety plan includes management strategies along with strategies to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

The collaborative suggests that for health and safety plans to be disability-inclusive they should include additional worker protections. Examples include protections against discrimination on disability, protection for workers at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, ensuring confidentiality of information and protecting against retaliation. 

Plans can also reference guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), use of PPE and face coverings and the education and training of workers on COVID-19 policies and procedures.  

Additionally, the collaborative looked at telework policies. The recommendations put forth contain four elements: 

  • General principles 
  • Telework policies 
  • Telework agreements 
  • Management of telework programs 

General principles include addressing the need for clarity, flexibility and universal design. The collaborative also recommends telework policies explicitly indicate how the policy relates to individuals with disabilities, have clear guidelines and documentation for telework requests and allow for flexibility in acquiring and using technology.

Also recommended: telework agreements be customizable and include allowing an individual with a disability to telework during an emergency. Management of telework programs was also addressed. Trainings, designating a coordinator, coordinating with your state’s assistive technology resources and training your IT support on accessible technology can all help create a disability-inclusive telework policy.    

Workforce Retention  

Workforce retention benefits employees and their families, employers and state governments. Employees and their families benefit from a better quality of life and economic stability, while employers spend less time and resources hiring a new employee.

Governments benefit from increased tax revenue. The collaborative looked to mental health and vaccine policies as key areas for consideration. To facilitate the retention of workers whose mental health was affected by the pandemic or those with pre-existing mental health and substance abuse disorders, the collaborative identified several policy recommendations including:  

  • Expanding access to telemental health. 
  • Ensuring equity and accessibility of telemental health. 
  • Educating managers, supervisors and employees.
  • Addressing the needs of frontline workers and transition age youth.
  • Making flexibilities permanent.  

The collaborative also laid out policies states could consider ensuring vaccine distribution is inclusive of those with disabilities. These policy recommendations include employer workplace vaccination programs like mandates, exemptions and compensation or time off to get vaccinated.

Also highlighted was making sure registration websites and mobile apps are accessible, usable platforms and up to date.  Furthermore, the collaborative recommends ensuring physical vaccination sites are accessible. Transportation to and from vaccination sites is also critical to ensuring vaccine access. The final recommendation is to provide communication that is tailored for individuals with disabilities.  Examples can include disability-specific toolkits and outreach to the disability community. 

Preparing for Work  

As the country moves into an economic recovery from the pandemic, many are looking to increased employment and retention as ways to accelerate the recovery.

One way to increase employment is through programs that support workforce readiness. The third area the collaborative addressed is preparing for work with policy options focusing on workforce readiness. The policies the collaborative laid out to help ensure a disability-inclusive workforce apply to a variety of workforce readiness programs including apprenticeships, secondary and postsecondary programs and vocational rehabilitation programs. Due to the transition to a virtual space both in education and the workplace, the collaborative recommended ensuring online accessibility and usability as well as assistive technology devices.

States can consider policies dealing with reasonable accommodations, including an interactive process between employers and those with disabilities to identify effective accommodations. It's also recommended that states provide training and technical assistance to managers, supervisors and people with disabilities to better understand the importance of disability inclusion.  

The pandemic has strained many state systems, including those that serve people with disabilities. To ensure that these systems can continue to provide critical services, the collaborative recommends effective coordination and collaboration among state agencies. States can create an infrastructure that facilities communication, regular coordination meetings, open sharing of data and resources and cross-training staff.   

To learn more about the work of the SEED COVID-19 Policy Collaborative you can visit these three resources, COVID-19 Policy Collaborative for an Inclusive Recovery Convenings Report, COVID-19 Policy Collaborative: Frameworks for a Disability-Inclusive Recovery and COVID-19 Policy Collaborative: Policy Checklist for a Disability-Inclusive Recovery.  

Rebecca Tyus is an intern with NCSL's Employment, Labor and Retirement Program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.