People with disabilities have historically been underrepresented in the labor force, but many policymakers on both sides of the aisle are working to change that.
During the 2022 and 2023 legislative sessions, lawmakers across the country took essential steps toward advancing employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Some key trends emerged, including incentivizing hiring and competitive, integrated employment for those with disabilities, and addressing mental health concerns in the workforce.
Inclusive Hiring Initiatives in State Government
Since the pandemic and resulting from the “great resignation,” “silver tsunami,” workforce shortages and other compounding workforce issues, the public sector has experienced a considerable loss of employees and has had significant challenges filling open positions. Policymakers are seeking creative ways to recruit, hire and retain in state government, including targeting historically underemployed groups. This includes bringing more people with disabilities into the labor force.
State governments are examining ways to streamline their hiring processes to reduce barriers for not only people with disabilities, but many historically underrepresented groups. This year, Arizona enacted legislation mandating reviews of all state roles to determine which can remove four-year degree requirements to increase the number of applicants. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin also recently removed degree requirements from most state jobs. Virginia in 2022 and West Virginia in 2023 have mandated state hiring preferences for underrepresented groups, such as veterans and people with disabilities.
Continued Interest in Elimination of Subminimum Wage
States also evaluated how to promote competitive integrated employment for people with disabilities in the private sector. Under section 14(c) of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, workers with disabilities can be paid a subminimum wage if their disability reduces their production capacity. In most states, this remains the case, with over 67,000 workers with disabilities making a subminimum wage as of July 2022. However, states are increasingly shifting toward competitive integrated employment (CIE): people with disabilities working alongside and paid at the same rate as their peers without disabilities. Amid ongoing workforce shortages, promoting CIE is one way to encourage more people with disabilities to enter the workforce.
While the long-term consequences of subminimum wage elimination are still unclear, 16 states have eliminated subminimum wages for people with disabilities. Four of these did so in the last two years alone. Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee all eliminated subminimum wages in 2022. Virginia joined them in 2023, and six additional states introduced legislation in the 2022-23 session.
Adapting to Long COVID
Three years after the start of the pandemic, it is estimated that between 7.7 million and 23 million Americans suffer from long COVID, and 2 million to 4 million of those are out of work because of it. Those who remain in the workforce often must work reduced hours, have fewer workplace responsibilities or require other accommodations to continue to work due to their health conditions. Consequently, the federal government has declared long COVID can be a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Legislators acknowledge long COVID is a contributor to the labor shortage. However, much is still unknown about the condition.
States are recognizing the need to gather more information about long COVID’s impacts on health and the workforce. New York introduced legislation this year to establish a long COVID review board to evaluate data on the condition and develop recommendations to contribute to its prevention. It also introduced a bill to study long COVID’s impacts on the labor market. New Hampshire introduced legislation creating a committee to examine school and work accommodations for people with long COVID. Minnesota introduced appropriations of $6.2 million in fiscal years 2024 and 2025 to address long COVID and post-COVID conditions.
Improving Mental Health Supports
As we continue to grapple with the aftermath of the pandemic, rates of behavioral health conditions---considered invisible disabilities-have increased. Drug overdoses and deaths by suicide are also on the rise. Many Americans report their mental health needs are not being met, with 90% of the country believing we are facing a mental health crisis. States have recognized the need for greater access to mental health services and are taking action.
As labor shortages continue across many industries, the behavioral health workforce shortage is especially pressing. Eighty-three percent of behavioral health workers believe without significant policy changes, providers will not be able to meet community needs. Legislators are seeking creative ways to boost the behavioral health labor force. In doing so, they are also working to address the unique workforce needs of underserved and rural communities. Colorado enacted legislation in 2022 requiring the state’s Behavioral Health Administration to partner with institutions of higher education to grow the behavioral health workforce. Many states also used funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to boost pay, recruitment and retention for behavioral health workers in 2022.
Mental health can impact someone’s ability to perform their job. Workplace care and supports play a vital role in keeping people with mental health conditions employed. Multiple states have introduced targeted legislation to support the mental health needs of first responders. Especially after the pandemic, first responders have unique mental health considerations: 30% develop behavioral health conditions as compared to 20% of the general population. Arizona recently enacted legislation establishing a program for public safety workers to access counseling paid for by their employer. Illinois and Kansas both introduced bills this year requiring PTSD in first responders to be covered by workers’ compensation. Minnesota introduced legislation this year to conduct a study on ways to improve outcomes for people with work-related PTSD.
Recognizing that the mental health crisis is a multifaceted issue, policymakers are working across state lines to collaborate and share best practices. This year, the State Exchange on Employment & Disability convened the Mental Health Matters National Task Force on Workforce Mental Health Policy, which brought together lawmakers from all over the country to hear from experts and share insights on promising practices. The group is contributing to a policy framework that will be rolled out in Summer 2023. The framework will capture key considerations legislators should keep in mind when crafting policies to address behavioral health needs and workforce shortages.
A portion of this effort was funded by the Office of Disability Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor through the State Exchange on Employment & Disability. This publication, and references to any other organization’s resources, do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Office of Disability Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor, nor does the mention of trade names, commercial products or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government.