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Pandemic unemployment rates rose higher for NYers with disabilities

A red and white "WE'RE HIRING" banner hangs in storefront window above red shopping carts.
Paul Sakuma
In this April 25, 2011 photo, a "We're Hiring!" sign is shown at Office Depot in Mountain View, Calif. More people sought unemployment benefits last week, the second rise in three weeks, a sign the job market's recovery is slow and uneven.(AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

According to the New York Department of Labor report, people with disabilities have experienced significantly higher rates of unemployment during the pandemic.

From March 2020-April 2021, unemployment rates for New Yorkers with disabilities averaged 16.2%, an increase of 8.9% from the year before. The rate of unemployment for the general population is lower, with a monthly average of 11.3%.

Organizations working with people with disabilities throughout the pandemic have seen the impact of COVID-19 firsthand. The Catskill Center for Independence, one of 42 independent living centers in New York, helps people with disabilities and mental health challenges find housing and jobs.

“[CCFI helps with] resume writing, interview skills, mock interviews, job skills, job searching techniques and methodologies, all the way up to the first day of work,” said Meghan Staring, CCFI’s executive director. “They can have a job coach go with them to day one if they want, if they feel uneasy, just to help them integrate into their new employment setting.”

Staring said there were several reasons for the high unemployment numbers. At the beginning of the pandemic, jobs were difficult to find. Many of the people CCFI works with were afraid to leave their homes because of COVID-19.

Between feeling stuck at home and being unable to get in-person medical and emotional support, Staring said the isolation of the pandemic was especially challenging for many people with disabilities.

“It was a cycle that individuals were kind of in the hamster wheel on, and some of them are just getting back to comfortable being in the stores now,” said Staring. “And trying to overcome that fear that they had for the past 12, 13, 14 months.”

According to the jobs report, in 2019, unemployment rates for New Yorkers with disabilities had decreased to 8.8%, their lowest since 2009. Staring said that more statewide services, coupled with a focus on supporting people with disabilities in multiple areas of life, from housing to jobs to community connection, contributed to this drop in unemployment.

Now that the state is opening up again, Staring said the referrals CCFI gets from people looking for support and work have jumped back up. But it may take some time for unemployment numbers to decrease. The jobs report shows that unemployment rates for people with disabilities have taken longer to even out than for the general population.

Staring said that while many of the people CCFI works with are looking for jobs again, there are only so many local openings and a lot of applicants.

In the meantime, she said that the center will continue to focus on the whole lives of their clients, making sure people with disabilities are supported throughout the process.

“Individuals with disabilities are back out, they’re looking for work just like everybody else at this point,” said Staring. “And we’re kind of getting back to where we were a year and a half ago, in terms of getting supports back in place and focusing on life as a whole, to make sure employment is sustainable for them.”