Workers With Disabilities Help Fuel Utah’s Post-COVID Economy

By Ben Crabb, Regional Economist

Given intended economic restrictions through monetary policy undertaken by the United States Federal Reserve (Fed), the resilience of labor markets has been a surprise to many economists throughout 2022 and 2023. In Utah, the number of jobs now is above what would have been anticipated given the deep COVID jobs disruption coupled with Fed moves to slow the economy’s post-COVID inflation flareup. The continued expansion of the labor market depends to a large degree on maintaining a high labor force participation rate. After taking a downturn in the early part of the pandemic, Utah’s labor force participation rate has rebounded and is now at its highest level since 2009. This article will explore how an oftentimes under-utilized part of the workforce — workers with disabilities — has helped fuel Utah’s increased labor force participation rate.

Workers with disabilities generally have lower labor force participation rates in part due to external difficulties, such as transportation, workplace accommodations, and limited work schedules. A pandemic silver lining is that it helped bring about adjustments that lowered some of these barriers, such as the rise of remote work. The pandemic era labor shortages also stimulated wage gains and provided employers with incentives to consider labor from previously under-utilized portions of the populace. With higher wages and more accommodative employers, the conditions of the past few years have helped boost the labor force participation rate of workers with disabilities. 

While the labor force participation rate among people with disabilities is higher now than it was just before COVID hit, it is still lower than it was as recently as 2018. The gap between where the labor force participation rate is now and where it has been represents a pool of under-utilized potential labor numbering in the tens of thousands.

Data source

The Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) is utilized to assess Utah's labor force participation of workers with disabilities. This national survey goes out to 60,000 households every month and is used to calculate various national and state-level labor market metrics, including unemployment rates and labor force participation rates. The survey asks respondents to self-report six types of physical or cognitive difficulties: difficulty with hearing, vision, memory, physical ability, personal care and mobility.

Respondents with disabilities are identified as having at least one of the following conditions: is Deaf or has serious difficulty hearing; is blind or has serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses; has serious difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions because of a physical, mental or emotional condition; has serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs; has difficulty dressing or bathing; or has difficulty doing errands alone such as visiting a doctor's office or shopping because of a physical, mental or emotional condition. (

This article looks at some aspects of Utah’s residents with disabilities as identified in the CPS. The goal is to better understand their levels of involvement within the job market, and how their contributions during the post-COVID era have helped fuel Utah’s labor force expansion. Because the monthly sample size of Utah residents in the CPS is rather small, the metrics reported upon are 12-month moving averages to expand the sample size and smooth out month-to-month variability.

Utahns with disabilities: labor market insights from the Current Population Survey

Data for the 12 months ending in August 2023 indicates that about 10.5% of the age 16+ Utah population self-reported a disability. Residents with disabilities tend to be older, reflecting increasing health issues with age. Nearly half (47%) of those with disabilities are aged 65+, while just 13% of those without disabilities are over age 65.

Rates of labor force participation differ substantially between workers with and without disabilities. The rate among workers without disabilities has hovered between 70-75% for the last few years, while among workers with disabilities it fluctuates in the 25-40% range. When COVID hit in 2020, workers with disabilities encountered a bigger downturn in labor force participation, whereas the rate among workers without disabilities barely changed (keep in mind that these data are 12-month moving averages, which can smooth out any extreme declines that would have occurred in the early days of the pandemic).

The graph above shows a steady decline in the labor force participation rate among workers with disabilities during 2018 and early 2019. Once COVID emerged in early 2020, the labor force participation dynamics can be understood as reactions to the challenges within the pandemic era. To isolate differing experiences of workers with and without disabilities through the COVID era, the data can be reframed to show just 2020 and thereafter. 

The labor force participation decline among workers with disabilities in the early pandemic period was likely influenced by workers’ health concerns, spurring a small exodus from the labor force. However, once vaccines were available and employers were encountering stringent labor shortages, workers with disabilities re-entered the labor force at a fast pace. 

Indeed, after the first 12 months of the pandemic was past, workers with disabilities provided an outsized contribution to the growth within Utah’s labor force. From May 2021 to August 2023, 25% of new labor force participants in Utah were workers with disabilities, a rate about five times higher than their previous additions to the labor supply. Earlier in the pandemic recovery, the contribution from workers with disabilities was even larger. From May 2021 to March 2022, the Utah economy benefitted from about 32,000 new labor force participants, 90% of whom were workers with disabilities!

The labor force contribution of workers with disabilities was very large in the early recovery from COVID. While many of the jobs that these workers filled were full-time positions, part-time work is more prevalent among workers with disabilities (39%) than among workers with no disability (22%).

Final thoughts

After the encouraging rebound in labor force participation among individuals with disabilities in the early COVID recovery, more recently the rate has held steady around 35%. While today’s labor force participation rate among workers with disabilities is higher by about four percentage points than it was before COVID hit, post-COVID gains seem to have plateaued. The increase in remote work, more flexible workplace arrangements and higher wages seem to have hit a limit upon inducing additional workers with disabilities into the workforce. 

At current labor force participation rates, approximately 5% of the Utah workforce are workers with disabilities. This level is up from a low of around 3.5% in 2021, but it is still lower than the ~7% level in 2018. Aging populations are increasing labor force exits. Therefore, labor shortages are likely to be a persistent part of the economic landscape going forward. However, people with disabilities represent a large pool of potential workers. Were the proportion of the workforce composed of people with disabilities to expand to its 2018 level of 7% from its current level of 5%, this would bring an additional ~35,000 workers into the labor force. 

With labor shortages likely to be a persistent aspect of the economy in coming decades due to aging populations, making effective use of all available labor pools will help employers address their labor needs while helping Utah’s economy continue to expand. As the recovery from the COVID pandemic has shown, workers with disabilities are a valuable part of the state’s economy.

The Utah Department of Workforce Services has resources available to help employers interested in hiring workers with disabilities, and to help people with disabilities seeking assistance entering or staying in the workforce. More information can be found in the links below: