The Great Recession And Serving Dislocated Workers With Disabilities:

by Maria Heidkamp and William Mabe, Ph.D.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), between 2007 and 2009 (the period now known as the
Great Recession), nearly seven million workers who had worked for the same employer for at least three years
lost their jobs, almost twice as many workers who were displaced between 2005 and 2007. Not only had the
number of displaced workers grown significantly during this period, these workers also experienced greater
difficulty returning to work. By January 2010, only half the workers who had been displaced in the three previous
years had become reemployed, compared with two-thirds in January 2008 (BLS, 2010a). Today, with 14.5 million
Americans currently unemployed, many job seekers continue to face formidable hurdles in reconnecting to the
labor market (BLS, 2011).
While the recession has been widespread, affecting a wide variety of individuals, one group has been hit
particularly hard — people with disabilities. Kaye (2010) found that from 2007 until 2009, the number of people
with disabilities as a percentage of all employed workers had declined by 9%. For workers with disabilities who
have lost their jobs, unemployment presents a special challenge because they often have greater difficulty
reconnecting to the labor market. Fogg, Harrington, and McMahon (2010) found that between June 2008 and
September 2009, nearly one-third of people with disabilities were unemployed for at least six months — known
as long-term unemployed — compared to a quarter of people without disabilities.
In an effort to shrink the amount of time that workers spend unemployed, the federal Workforce Investment
Act requires states to provide “Rapid Response” activities to help workers affected by a layoff or plant closing
get quickly connected — even before leaving their jobs — to the public workforce (One-Stop Career Center)
system and to services such as Unemployment Insurance, career counseling, job search, and training.
downsized from companies where they have worked for many years are at greater risk of joining the ranks of
the long-term unemployed. As envisioned by the Workforce Investment Act, one of the primary rationales for
dedicated Rapid Response activities is that early intervention may reduce the likelihood of individuals becoming
long-term unemployed. Because Rapid Response officials have the most experience working with people at great
risk of long-term unemployment, these individuals often have knowledge of practices that are considered most
effective at curtailing long-term unemployment of dislocated workers that may be applied to reducing long-term
unemployment among workers with disabilities.
Shortening the duration of unemployment is critical for many reasons. Researchers from the John J. Heldrich
Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University examined the effects of the recession on unemployed
workers in detail through several national random sample surveys of unemployed workers. In August 2009, the
Heldrich Center interviewed a national random sample of 1,202 people who reported that they had lost a job
at some point during the 12 months between September 2008 and August 2009. In March 2010, 908 of these
respondents were interviewed again, and 764 respondents were interviewed once more in November 2010. Of
those re-interviewed in November, only a quarter (26%) had found full-time employment, and 8% were working
part time and not looking for full-time work. Eleven percent were working part time and continuing to look for
full-time work. Forty-three percent were still unemployed and looking for work, and 13% were still unemployed
but had stopped looking for work. The financial consequences of job loss have been dire. Of the reemployed
workers, roughly half (48%) were forced to take a pay cut, with nearly 60% earning at least 20% less than they
had been earning previously. Sixty-one percent of those re-interviewed said they believe they will never get back
to their prior economic station in life. Eighty-one percent rated their personal financial situation as either only
fair or poor. A majority (57%) said their family’s financial situation was worse than two years ago, and 58% said
they have a lot less in savings and income than at the start of the recession (Godofsky, Van Horn, & Zukin, 2010).
In addition to the heavy toll unemployment has exacted on these individuals economically, it is not surprising to
learn that they reported high levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. Fully half of the unemployed respondents
reported avoiding social contact with family, friends, and acquaintances; 43% reported being “quick to anger”;
and 13% reported substance dependency (Borie-Holtz, Van Horn, & Zukin, 2010).
Recognizing the scope of the problem of long-term unemployment and the consequences it exerts, NTAR
Leadership Center researchers sought to gain a better understanding of the extent to which people with
disabilities who had lost their jobs were seeking services from the public workforce system, and to identify
strategies, if any, being used at the state and local levels to help these workers reconnect with the labor market.
To inform this broad research objective, the NTAR Leadership Center sought to answer the following research
1. How has the population of unemployed workers served by One-Stop Career Centers changed during the
recession? Has it included people with disabilities?
2. To what extent are vocational rehabilitation counselors and others knowledgeable about people with
disabilities involved in reemployment/Rapid Response efforts?
3. What targeted strategies, if any, have state and local governments used to provide reemployment services to
dislocated workers with self-reported disabilities?
4. Have these efforts included strategies to increase the self-disclosure rate of people with disabilities?
In the pages that follow, the first section describes the methodology that NTAR Leadership Center researchers
used to study these research questions. The second section reviews the empirical literature on strategies that
have been tried to return dislocated workers to work. The third section discusses the findings obtained from
interviews with state and local workforce professionals. The final section offers the researchers’ conclusions.