Disabled workers left to choose between their lives and livelihoods
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Remote working
John van der Luit-Drummond is editor of International Employment Lawyer

“We’re seeing a lot of redundancy issues, but it gives you a sinking feeling when someone who’s been shielding, is a carer, or has young kids tells you they’ve been picked as the first to go,” said Jamie McGlynn, a contact centre manager at Citizens Advice in Manchester, UK, last year. “People are absolutely wracked with worry. One lady with underlying health conditions told her employer she felt unsafe about returning to work as another worker had covid symptoms but wasn’t isolating. The next week she had her redundancy notice through.”

McGlynn’s comments came following research suggesting disabled people were among a group of workers at least twice as likely to face redundancy during the pandemic. Now, with the government-backed furlough scheme coming to an end this week, and amid a renewed push by businesses to get employees back into the workplace, there are fresh concerns that the UK’s 4.4 million disabled workers may find themselves at a greater risk of workplace discrimination and redundancy over the coming months.

With employment and income challenges affecting many working-age disabled people, as well as a fear of returning to the workplace among those who remain clinically vulnerable to coronavirus, Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK, believes disabled workers are facing a perfect storm: “You’ve got furlough ending; universal credit uplift is coming to an end; and shielding is completely ending, which means any workers who are worried about returning to the workplace may have to choose between their lives and their livelihoods.” 

In the years before the pandemic, one-quarter (24%) of employers admitted they were less likely to employ someone with a disability. The practicalities (68%) and cost (66%) of making workplace adjustments were the most cited barriers to employing disabled people, according to the findings of a ComRes poll.

However, the emergence of covid-19 has amplified disability inequalities. Although one-in-six (17%) of the working-age population faced redundancy in 2020, a survey of 6,000 workers found one-in-four disabled people (27%) faced losing their job last year due to workplace reorganisations.

This figure rose to 37% of those who said their disability has a large impact on their day-to-day life, according to the Citizens Advice study. Moreover, around half of those who were in the shielded group (48%), as they were extremely clinically vulnerable to coronavirus, were also at risk of redundancy.

In the past, I’ve been told I didn’t get a job I applied for because they were concerned my health would ‘get in the way’

Further research by the Institute for Employment Studies found that two-in-five (40%) disabled employees were either furloughed or had their hours reduced, compared with around one-third (30%) of non-disabled employees during the pandemic.

A separate study by UK disability charity Leonard Cheshire found that seven-in-ten (71%) disabled people have been impacted by loss of income, furlough, unemployment, or other damaging effects as a result of covid-19-related lockdowns.

The polling also revealed that two-in-five (42%) employers had been discouraged from hiring disabled job applicants due to concerns around supporting them properly during the pandemic, while one-in-five employers said they would be less likely to hire someone if they were disabled.

Meanwhile, the proportion of employers who said their organisation employs any disabled staff fell to 33% in 2020, a 16-percentage-point drop from 2018 (49%). Only 21% had hired any disabled people since 2018, according to the research.

“In the past, I’ve been told I didn’t get a job I applied for because they were concerned my health would ‘get in the way’, that they needed someone who could be relied upon (referring to my disability) and that I’d be a burden to the company. This has to change,” said Sophia Kleanthous, an alumna of Leonard Cheshire’s Change 100 programme, last October.

“Those young people who work in retail and hospitality have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic,” offers Hadi. “All disabled people face challenges, but those who are trying to make their mark, their first opportunity in the workplace, are maybe going to face a few more barriers.”

Mind the gap

With more than 40% of UK railway stations and around 60% of London underground stations currently without step-free access, it is easy to understand why one-third (35%) of disabled workers experience problems commuting by train. That almost half (43%) of disabled people also experience problems travelling by bus and it should come as little surprise that workers have had to turn down employment (7%), or missed a job interview (5%) as a result of public transport that did not accommodate their disability.

In that context, it stands to reason that disabled employees would feel more productive continuing to work remotely in a post-covid world. Indeed, a Unison survey found nearly three-quarters (73%) of more than 4,000 disabled staff felt as or more productive working from home compared to their pre-pandemic workplace.

Worryingly, more than half (53%) of respondents said they had received no reasonable adjustments from their employer to help them to work from home. A similar number (54%) felt they would benefit from home working in the future, but nearly two-in-five (37%) believed their employer was unlikely to allow this.

Shielding may have formally come to an end, but that doesn’t mean people with some cancers or challenges to their immune system aren’t highly at risk from covid

“Those working from home may not be a large percentage of the disabled working population, but for them it means cutting out the trauma of transport, which might be hard to use, inaccessible, and energy consuming, especially if they managed to work more productively from home,” says Hadi.

Ryan Bradshaw, an employment and discrimination specialist at Leigh Day, has already seen an increase in enquiries from disabled workers relating to their employers’ failure to make reasonable adjustments.

“Enquiries are particularly around whether disabled people ought to be required to come to the workplace and whether they can be given roles which allow them to work from home in the event their usual job requires them to attend the workplace or work face-to-face with people,” he explains.

As certain employers, particularly those in the financial services sector, begin returning to an office-centric working culture, HR teams should not only conduct a detailed risk assessment to be applied to the office generally, but also have individual consultations with their staff about their fears and needs, advises Bradshaw.

“For example, you may have employees who live with someone who is clinically extremely vulnerable and requiring them to attend work could be considered to be indirect associative discrimination,” he says.

“Shielding may have formally come to an end, but that doesn’t mean people with some cancers or challenges to their immune system aren’t highly at risk from covid,” adds Hadi. “And should they catch it, the impact to them could be devastating.”

Long covid concerns

With more than 380,000 long covid sufferers in the UK, employers may soon have an additional class of disabled workers to accommodate, according to Hadi.

“A lot of people with long covid will have energy-limiting impairments, such as exhaustion, brain fog, and memory issues,” she says.“This means they may struggle more with their environment and with processing information. So, the Equality Act’s definition of disability, which is a substantive, long-term, health condition that affects your day-to-day living, to me, suggests long covid will become a disability.”

Progressive employers may naturally allow their disabled staff, including those with long covid, to work more flexibly and remotely. However, there are concerns that remote workers – specifically those with disabilities – may not receive the same opportunities for growth as their in-office colleagues, entrenching existing diversity issues in a company’s leadership structure and a likely rise in discrimination claims.

“If people are going to be increasingly allowed to work from home – and these people are more likely to be those with disabilities and childcare responsibilities – then employers must work to ensure that any recruitment processes and appraisals are not impacted,” says Bradshaw.

“This should be by careful independent monitoring of appraisals, recruitment, and interview processes, ideally by people who are not aware of whether a worker is in the office or from home. It may take some time for patterns to emerge so it is likely there will be some initial issues.”

We, as disabled people, spend everyday problem solving; we don’t get through a day without thinking about how we are going to do something differently

As the government’s furlough scheme comes to an end, many organisations may have to make some difficult decisions over the coming months and, according to Bradshaw, there is “a significant risk that employers will be carrying out redundancy exercises that are discriminatory in nature”. But if warnings of costly litigation and bad press won’t give employers pause for thought, then perhaps the business case for disability inclusivity will.

“Employers should talk to their disabled workers about what adjustments they need; what flexibilities would allow them to undertake the role,” says Hadi. “There is no doubt that, over the last 18 months, we have seen that the flexibilities many previously thought would bring the working world to a halt haven’t.

“Employers need to have a positive mindset that jobs can be done flexibly,” she continues. “You will have some amazing employees – both disabled and non-disabled – who are like gold dust because the job market is so competitive right now. To hang on to those people you’ve got to make sure you’re not putting barriers in their way when they could support your business.”

In the long term, the government’s proposal to grant employees the right to request flexible working from day one of a new job should help level up the UK labour market for those in need of more flexible working arrangements, including disabled workers.

“Giving workers the right to flexible working from day one is a remarkable step forward for equal opportunities in the workplace,” says Gemma Hope, Leonard Cheshire’s director of policy. “The last 18 months presented many employers with a once-in-a-generation challenge, but also a powerful lesson. We now know universal flexible working is possible and even beneficial to many employees. The government talks about ‘levelling up’. Flexible working makes this a reality for many disabled employees, as a simple, progressive, and highly effective adjustment.”

In the meantime, however, the dual experiences of covid and working differently should help employers to make fewer assumptions about what disabled people can and cannot bring to the workplace. “We, as disabled people, spend everyday problem solving; we don’t get through a day without thinking about how we are going to do something differently,” says Hadi. “We’ve got some amazing skills and experience to bring to the workforce that perhaps people don’t always recognise.”