More MS news articles for May 2002

Will the Economic Recovery Leave the Disabled Behind?

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Updated April 16, 2002
By CARLOS TEJADA
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

When Lauren Telep shows up for a job interview, the 46-year-old New Yorker leaves behind her big black cane. Instead, she takes a fold-up cane that she can tuck into her purse before the interview begins, thereby hiding the fact she has multiple sclerosis .

"Why walk in with a cane? It's a check against me already," says Ms. Telep, who lost a job in sales last year.

As the economy shows signs of improvement, people with illnesses, injuries and disabilities fear that any recovery will pass them by -- and there is basis for their concern. When good times return, companies often look to add the best-skilled, best-educated, and more often than not, healthiest workers first. That doesn't favor many workers with disabilities, who may be older or may have less workplace experience.

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"If you're an employer, and [you're considering] a 55-year-old guy whose back goes out, do you want to hire him? Or do you want ... a tote-the-bale-all-day young kid?" asks Kathy Bottroff, president of Pros & Associates, a physical rehabilitation firm in Oklahoma City.

One barometer of the disabled's state in today's job market is that more are turning to the government for support, indicating they are having trouble finding work. The number of people who filed for Social Security disability insurance benefits -- about 1.5 million last year -- is up 13% from 2000 and up 28% from a recent low of about 1.2 million in 1998. Just under half of all such applications are approved for the benefits, which start at an average $600 a month.

Such figures mark a striking departure from recent years. While much of the decade, with its tight labor market, worked in favor of the disabled, employers today can pick from plenty of healthier job candidates. Meantime, many companies have eliminated the kinds of jobs that can accommodate workers with disabilities -- such as light office work -- as they cut costs. With budgets still tight, a lot of those jobs may not return any time soon.

That's what happened during the last recession. When the economy began to sour in 1990, disability filings rose with unemployment but didn't begin to fall again until 1995. The unemployment rate, meanwhile, had begun to improve a full two years earlier. One reason, says Susan Daniels, a former Social Security deputy commissioner: "Everybody else may be doing fine, but [disability filers] may still be having problems until the recovery is solid."

Targeting people with disabilities for layoffs is illegal, of course. But such workers invariably are caught up in job cuts. Of 100 workers with disabilities overseen by Employment Solutions Inc., a placement firm in Lexington, Ky., 20 were laid off at the end of 2001. Most of them haven't found new jobs, says Rick Christman, chief executive.

In November 2000, Tim Flynn, 40, lost his job as a liaison at We Media Inc., a New York concern that publishes a magazine for people with disabilities. The quadriplegic remembers returning to his apartment, looking out the window, and thinking, "What the hell am I going to do now?" Dot-coms were out; even if they were hiring, many were in older buildings up several flights of stairs. By last September, savings gone, he left his $1,800-a-month Manhattan apartment and moved to an Ashaway, R.I., home owned by his parents.

Getting a job was hard enough in the best of times, Mr. Flynn says, and amid economic uncertainty he figures the bar is even higher. "If you're Joe Human Resources, you look at me, and you say, 'What do I need the headache for? Why do I need to worry about any of this stuff?' "

Some cost-conscious employers fear disabilities lead to extra expenses such as accommodations ranging from minor furniture purchases to big elevator and ramp projects. They also fear some disabilities will lead to hospital visits and higher health-care costs. Workers with any kind of disability frequently "are last in and first out," says Cary Fields, co-founder and chief executive of We Media.

That knowledge made We Media's own layoffs, beginning late in 2000, especially hard. Mr. Fields says the company released the disabled and nondisabled alike. In the case of those with a disability, the layoffs came only after accommodations had been made to put them on equal footing -- such as giving software that controls a computer by voice to someone who has lost use of their hands. Then, "if you can't produce, you're going to have to go," he says.

The company now has about nine employees, down from more than 150. People with disabilities "are the only people who will come in and thank you if you lay them off," Mr. Fields says. "They're happy someone gave them a chance."

Megan Baker has spina bifida and Noonan syndrome, both birth defects. Until last month the 20-year-old returned toys to shelves and guided customers around a Toys "R" Us in Lexington for $6.50 an hour. After Christmas, though, her hours gradually were cut back. Then she was laid off. Jeff Strickland, a Toys "R" Us manager, confirms Ms. Baker's account. He says business fell off after Sept. 11, though it has turned more steady lately.

The decision was "understandable," Ms. Baker says today. "I stand there, greet and help people, but that doesn't make money. They're keeping the cashiers and stuff." The store wants to hire her back, if possible, Ms. Baker adds. If she returns, she hopes to train to be a cashier. "That way, they won't lay me off again."
 

Copyright 2002, Wall Street Journal