The Changing Nature of Work

Glenn Jacoby 4/29/2022

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See NCSL’s additional resources on Workforce Participation Shortages

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the landscape of labor had begun to shift. Discussions about the future of work often centered around automation and artificial intelligence. Many employers increasingly relied on machines and algorithms to perform tasks. The pandemic has dramatically quickened the pace of these changes, with many businesses automating more jobs to combat labor shortages and increase profits. 

Furthermore, despite businesses and workplaces reopening, labor force participation rates remain lower than before the pandemic began. The pandemic has forced many Americans to reconsider what they value most, and workers have more leverage to demand workplace flexibility. The preexisting trend toward remote work has been accelerated, and many employers have turned pandemic-induced telework arrangements into permanent policies to retain employees. 

However, millions of jobs remain unfilled, and the “Great Resignation” continues. Increasing automation and the expansion of telework opportunities affect populations underrepresented in the labor force—such as people with disabilities, family caretakers, women of color and others—in different ways. In response, state governments are getting creative and focusing on an inclusive economic recovery to maximize workforce participation. Learn more about these trends below.

Automation and Artificial Intelligence

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the pre-existing trend toward job automation. A survey of business leaders by the World Economic Forum determined 50% planned to accelerate the automation of jobs in their companies in response to the pandemic and 43% reported automation was set to reduce the size of their workforce. Marginalized groups are more likely to feel the effects of this automation, as those with less access to opportunities to obtain degrees and credentials are more likely to work in positions on track to be automated.

One trend in state policy is proving impactful in addressing some of these changes: apprenticeships. Apprenticeships offer an alternative path to a college degree while allowing employees to gain valuable skills that lead to increased economic opportunity. For those workers who are unable to pursue an undergraduate degree due to financial or personal constraints, apprenticeships can be a viable option to expand their credentials. In 2020, states passed 494 pieces of legislation related to apprenticeships, many of which incentivized apprenticeship programs to increase participation by underrepresented groups in the labor force.

Remote Work

For jobs that can be performed remotely, dramatic changes have arrived. While the initial shift toward remote work was due to the pandemic, 59% of Americans whose jobs can be performed from home are still working remotely all or most of the time. Most of these workers are choosing to work remotely despite their offices being open, and 60% of them would like to continue to work from home after the pandemic is over.

The World Economic Forum reported as of October 2020 that 83% of employers surveyed planned to increase remote work opportunities. This means increased opportunities for many people with disabilities for whom in-person work may not be an option. According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), flexible scheduling, alternative work arrangements, and transitions to telework are some of the most frequently requested accommodations, as the flexibility they provide reduces the risk of loss of employment due to attendance or transportation issues. Workers with disabilities benefit as more employers offer these options.

NCSL’s report The Promise of Telework provides more information about state policies related to remote work that are especially relevant for people with disabilities who could work from home.  Some of these include:

  • Increasing access to broadband in rural and underserved areas to ensure all people can benefit from the increased flexibility telework offers.
  • Promoting telework and alternative work schedules in the public sector and aiding employers in the private sector who are looking to expand telework options.

Increased access to telework does not just benefit workers with disabilities. It also benefits other underrepresented groups in the labor force. Workers facing transportation barriers can still perform their jobs. Family caretakers, most of whom are women, can access employment without having to sacrifice caring for their loved ones. Through telework, states can diversify their labor force and provide greater economic opportunity overall.

Inclusive Economic Recovery

As we move forward and emerge from the pandemic, policymakers can implement inclusive employment policies to bring more people into the labor force.

A graph comparing the unemployment rate for people with disabilities with the unemployment rate for people without disabilities for those ages sixteen and up

People with disabilities have historically experienced significantly higher rates of unemployment than people without disabilities. The U.S. Department of Labor’s State Exchange on Employment & Disability’s recent COVID-19 Policy Collaborative with NCSL and other leading state and local intermediaries provides a helpful policy checklist to maximize employment of people with disabilities. Some of these policies include:

  • Ensuring COVID-19 workplace health and safety plans are disability-inclusive by protecting workers at higher risk for severe illness, prioritizing confidentiality of employee health information, and protecting workers against discrimination and retaliation
  • Adopting flexible scheduling, alternative work arrangements and designing telework policies that can be adapted to the needs of individual employees and considering principles of universal design when selecting workplace technology for maximum accessibility. 

NCSL’s report Making Work Safe and Accessible During a Pandemic is also a valuable resource on ways states can create workplace safety policies to protect and accommodate employees with disabilities.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to massive shifts in the way Americans and their employers think about work. As technology continues to develop and more jobs are automated, governments must respond to the changing state of labor. The cultural shift toward an acceptance of remote work can benefit states by enabling more people, especially those from underrepresented groups, to enter the workforce. Increasing access to apprenticeships, telework, and other policies that promote equity is key in ensuring an inclusive economic recovery.