Is Job Automation Connected to Disability?

Grocery store clerk with a mask on

Manufacturing workers file more applications to the federal disability program than any other workers. What seems new is that jobs like administrative assistant and retail worker aren’t that far behind.

Is one possible explanation that the computerization of once-routine occupations like these plays a role in decisions to apply for disability benefits?

Consider the example of a retail worker with a bad back who is laid off, or perhaps she quits because she struggled to handle the cognitive challenges of increased automation. Even simple tasks such as processing customer transactions or locating a product at another store now require computer skills. And the worker’s skills may not match up with the technical qualifications needed to find a new job in a labor market where routine jobs are rapidly disappearing.

Given her disability, the worker might decide that her best – or only – option to ensure she has some income is to apply for disability benefits.

Job Automation ChartA study by Mathematica researcher April Yanyuan Wu did not find direct evidence that this skills mismatch triggers applications. But her findings suggest it might be a factor.

Wu provided new statistics on the types of jobs once held by disability applicants and on the changes over time in the job attributes, compared with the changes in job attributes facing the general working population.

Between 2007 and 2014, for example, the share of the applicants’ former jobs that required computer skills rose by 18 percentage points, outpacing the increase for the labor force overall. At the same time, jobs requiring moderate cognitive ability also increased more for people with disabilities than it did for all workers.

Stress is a telling indication of the challenges of increased job automation. The growth in high-stress jobs once held by people with disabilities was much larger than for workers overall, according to the study, which was funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration. …Learn More

Caring for a Parent Can Take Financial Toll

Parent and adult child with masks

Last spring, as COVID-19 tore through the nation’s nursing homes, many people agonized over whether to pull their elderly parents out and assume responsibility for the care.

The fall surge in the virus is no doubt causing more handwringing as adult children again weigh the challenges of home care against concerns about their parents’ physical and mental well-being.

One practical consideration is the impact on the work lives of parental caregivers, who are overwhelmingly women. Recent research has found that “there are long-term costs associated with caregiving reflected in [lower] earnings even long after caregiving has taken place.”

The research involved women in their 50s and 60s with at least one living parent or in-law, though they generally provided care to a parent rather than an in-law.

Workers sometimes downshift their careers in the years prior to retiring, but caregiving can affect whether older women work at all, the researchers found. Among the caregivers they followed, the share who were working fell by nearly 2 percentage points, to about 56 percent, after their duties began. And the caregivers who remained employed worked fewer hours after taking on a parent’s care.

Women also earned less over the long-term if they had spent time as a caregiver. They saw about a 15 percent decline in their earnings by the age of 65 – or nearly $1,800 per year, on average – according to an update of a study initially funded by the Social Security Administration with subsequent funding from the Sloan Foundation. …Learn More

Man using stand up desk

Disability Accommodations Help Workers

This big number may surprise you: one out of every four adults feels they need some type of accommodation by an employer for a medical condition or disability.

This finding comes from a study in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management that established a very inclusive standard for determining the need for employer accommodations. The researchers concluded, after following individuals 18 and older in their study for four years, that their employment rate was higher when they received support.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires employers to provide workers and job applicants with a “reasonable accommodation.” But disabling conditions aren’t always visible, and many people never ask employers for assistance. In addition, some employers – particularly small firms – may see accommodations as too costly.

In their 2014 supplement to a periodic RAND survey, the researchers found that 23 percent of workers and unemployed individuals said “yes” to a broad question designed to get a more accurate estimate of need than standard surveys: Does, or would, a special accommodation for your health “make it easier for you to work?”

This group was made up of workers who were already receiving an accommodation, as well as employed and unemployed individuals who felt they could use such support.

Workplace accommodations range from small things like buying a standing desk for an office worker with acute sciatica to reassigning a warehouse worker to a less physical task after he develops back problems. About half of the people who said an accommodation would help them received one – and the benefits were clear.

Between 2015 and 2018, their employment rate held steady at around 85 percent. But the rate for the people who weren’t being accommodated fell sharply, from 92 percent to 72 percent, according to the study funded by the Social Security Administration. …Learn More

Two older workers

Older and Self-Employed – a Diverse Lot

Self-employed workers who are 50 and older fall into a hierarchy of sorts, a new study finds.

The largest group is the 75 percent who work independently in jobs like freelancer and gig worker. Their average earnings are low – $18,000 a year – and they are more likely to be women or Hispanics.

The other 25 percent of the self-employed older workers are primarily white men and are evenly divided between business owners and managers who work on a contract basis. These individuals tend to be doctors, lawyers, or executives in industries ranging from finance and construction to retail.

To get a better handle on who is choosing self-employment and why, University of Michigan researcher Joelle Abramowitz analyzed 2016 survey data from the Health and Retirement Study. These data included not only older workers’ employment status but also specific information about their employers, industries, and occupations.

The self-employed account for roughly one out of five older workers, but the arrangement is especially popular among boomers over 65 – a third of the workers in this age group are self-employed.

Abramowitz’s research, funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration, finds a lot of diversity in the jobs the self-employed do and in their perceptions of work.

The low-paid independent workers dominate jobs like caregiver, cleaner, farmer, artist, and beauty industry worker. Many view themselves as “retired” and say they would rather not work but apparently need to supplement their retirement income.

In contrast, the owners and managers are far less likely to see themselves as officially retired. Compared with the independent workers, they earn considerably more and are wealthier. The net value of their financial, housing and other wealth exceeds $1 million on average.

Their attitudes are different too. …Learn More

Silhouettes of people

2020 Disability Blogs Tackle Myriad Issues

Squared Away has featured numerous articles this year – the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act – about the challenges that people with disabilities must deal with.

One in four adults in this country has some type of disability. What becomes clear when looking back at this collection of articles is the importance of ensuring that those who are capable of working get the support they need to overcome their unique challenges.

Employment rates, which are lower for people with disabilities, can be improved greatly if they receive support. One recent blog examined a program to assist people with severe intellectual or learning disabilities. The federal-state Vocational Rehabilitation program supplies coaches who help their clients find appropriate work and then smooth the bumps in the employer-employee relationship.

Another program that provides day care to children with disabilities has been effective in keeping their mothers – often single, low-income workers – in the labor force.

The logistical barriers to working are inherently higher for people with disabilities. Yet they are more likely than others to hold low-paying jobs with just-in-time scheduling or shifts that aren’t the same from week to week, according to research covered in an August blog. Imagine arranging special transportation or child care to accommodate these unpredictable schedules.

Economic factors also affect whether people find work or wind up on Social Security disability insurance. Amid the COVID-19 recession, researchers are concerned about the long-term impact of workers with disabilities losing their jobs. During the Great Recession, applications for Social Security disability benefits surged. Once people apply for disability benefits, the odds of ever going back to work decline.

Recessions are also an obstacle for people from low-income families trying to move up the economic ladder. Yet a researcher found that if they can manage to earn more than their parents, they will have more success staying off the disability rolls. One big reason: workers with good jobs and higher incomes are healthier because they can afford better medical care.

Our disability blogs cover research being funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration, which also supports this blog. Here is the complete list of the 2020 headlines:

Work:

Same Disability: Some Have Tougher Jobs

Same Arthritis but Some Feel More Pain

Disabilities and the Toll of Irregular Hours


Economy:
Learn More

Depressed woman

Why the Mix of Disabilities is Changing

The mix of disabilities for people receiving federal disability insurance has changed in important ways that often reflect trends in the health of the population as a whole.

Two disabling conditions that have become a growing share of Social Security’s benefit awards in recent decades are mood disorders and various musculoskeletal problems, which include arthritis and back pain.

First, consider mood disorders. They range from depression and bipolar disorder to irritability and seasonal affective disorder, and they can hamper someone’s ability to work. Mirroring the rising share of awards for mood disorders, their prevalence in the population has edged up from 54.6 percent of adults in 1997 to 56.2 percent in 2017, according to a study by Mathematica, a research organization.

Second, disability awards to people with musculoskeletal problems like arthritis and back pain have increased dramatically. These conditions are often aggravated by carrying excess weight, so the rise in cases aligns with the researchers’ estimate that the adult obesity rate has surged from about 20 percent to 31 percent. 

But a related finding about musculoskeletal conditions is more difficult to explain. Despite the growth in disability awards involving these conditions, the share of the population afflicted by them – about a third – hasn’t changed much, according to the study, which was conducted for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

The researchers found one clue to this apparent contradiction in a separate analysis indicating that this population’s ability to work may be deteriorating over time. …Learn More

Man running up the stairs

Economic Opportunity Reduces Disability

Add upward mobility – an individual’s success in surpassing parents’ economic circumstances – to the factors that can keep federal disability payments in check.

A substantial body of academic research has already established that when the economy is growing, unemployed and marginally employed people have better luck on the job market, and their applications for disability insurance start to decline.

But booms and busts aren’t the only influence on disability. A new study finds that economic conditions of a different type – the ability of low-income people to move up the economic ladder – can reduce disability by improving their health. People who earn more money tend to be healthier for a variety of reasons, ranging from access to better medical care to the lower rates of depression and obesity that exist in higher-income populations.

In a recent study, Yale University sociologist Rourke O’Brien used the data from another researcher’s study that mined IRS tax records to find people born in the 1980s to parents whose incomes were at the lower end – the 25th percentile – of the U.S. income distribution. The children were followed into adulthood to see if they earn more or less than their parents did.

It’s very difficult for children in low-income families to improve on their parent’s circumstances, but the odds are better if they grow up in areas with better schools, less inequality, and more two-parent families.

O’Brien’s research found that counties in which young adults earn more, on average, than their parents were less likely to one day report having a disability in U.S. Census surveys and less likely to be receiving disability benefits.

In a more in-depth analysis, the researcher found some evidence that upward mobility also blunts the well-known tendency of rising unemployment to increase disability applications.

Taken together, the findings indicate that whether someone ends up on disability benefits depends, at least in part, on where they grew up. …Learn More