COVID-19 and the labour market outcomes of disabled people in the UK

Shop sign that reads "sorry we're closed"

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated inequalities in society. In doing so, it has reinforced the importance of the government’s ‘levelling up’ policy agenda. In terms of protected characteristics, attention focused most immediately on ethnicity given the differences in health risk posed by COVID-19 and was subsequently concerned with gender as a result of the associated closure of schools and additional childcare responsibilities. Most recently the focus has been on age given evidence of more pronounced job losses among young people. In contrast, disability has been largely neglected. Yet pre-pandemic, disabled people faced some of the largest economic and social disadvantage in the UK.

Research at WISERD has been among the first to explore the labour market experience of disabled people during the pandemic. The analysis uses large-scale survey data to consider pre-pandemic labour market health and economic risk factors as well as the immediate impact of COVID-19. Disabled workers are found to be more likely to work in the hardest hit ‘shutdown’ sectors, such as retail and accommodation and food, and to have higher occupational COVID-19-related health risks measured by working in proximity to others and with exposure to disease.

In terms of working from home the analysis provides a mixed picture. While disabled workers are more likely to work from home pre-COVID-19 they are less likely to work in occupations with high potential for homeworking. During the first year of the pandemic the disability employment and pay gaps remain largely unchanged. However, employment rates among disabled people mask a disproportionate increase in being temporarily away from work, consistent with greater reliance on the government job retention ‘furlough’ scheme among disabled workers. This is true even after comparing disabled and non-disabled workers in similar occupations and industries. While it is too early to assess the full impact of this, the risk is that disabled people will be more affected over the medium term, leading to widening disability labour market inequality in the UK.

For further information see the full article in Social Science & Medicine (Volume 292).