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People With Disabilities May Face Greater Challenges When Returning To In-Person Work

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A significant number of Americans like working from home, including me, and poll after poll has shown this. But now, as vaccinations rise and COVID infections drop, employers are busy making plans to return to the office. But for some, working remotely has meant the difference between working and not working at all. NPR's Anna Sirianni reports.

ANNA SIRIANNI, BYLINE: Kristen Parisi had a tough time getting to work in New York City before the pandemic.

KRISTEN PARISI: It's nearly impossible to get to the office if you use a wheelchair or really have any type of mobility disability. The cities where the best jobs are are still our most inaccessible cities.

SIRIANNI: A number of barriers made it hard for Parisi, a writer and disability advocate, to navigate her wheelchair through the city. Bad weather, heavy doors, unreliable subway station elevators - they all made every trip to the office a challenge. Some days there were just too many obstacles, and she would have to turn around and go home.

PARISI: And I would have to make those tough calls to make that awful email to my boss saying, I'm going to have to work from home today. Please understand. People looked at you as though you were trying to take advantage of a system that just wasn't built for you.

SIRIANNI: Even when she could get into work, parts of the office weren't built for her, either.

PARISI: I went for a year where I couldn't reach the microwave at work. So if I needed my coffee reheated or my lunch heated, I had to ask someone to do that for me, which is an incredibly - I don't want to call it humiliating, but it makes you feel very exposed.

SIRIANNI: Parisi left her job at a PR firm in 2018. She says she applied to more than a thousand jobs with no luck. But that changed in 2020, when COVID started closing cities.

PARISI: Some of my friends said, oh, you know, you're still applying for jobs every day. I said, I'm applying for more now than ever because maybe places are going to be more open to the idea of long-term remote work.

SIRIANNI: She was right. Parisi found a job at a marketing firm in January 2021 that would allow her to work from home permanently. She says working from home has helped her be more productive and avoid painstaking commutes. But with case counts dropping and vaccination rates rising, some employers are thinking about getting everyone back in their cubicles. Others are OK with employees staying at home. Ruth Colker is a professor of constitutional law and disability discrimination at the Ohio State University. She says that employers are usually focused on business decisions like how to save money or boost productivity, while employees are focused on personal decisions.

RUTH COLKER: Those business decisions, which may or may not be made to allow more of workers in general to work from home, don't speak to the question of what happens when a person with a disability says, I know everyone else has to go to the office, but I want to work from home.

SIRIANNI: That question will likely end up in court. Colker says it will be a heavy legal lift for people who want to keep working from home because courts have historically sided with employers, saying they can require in-person work. If they do, Colker says companies should know that a clean office full of vaccinated people still won't be safe for everyone.

COLKER: When we think about a post-COVID world, whatever that might look like, there are going to be some people for disability-based reasons that, even though they may have been vaccinated, the vaccine may not be effective. I think employers should realize going forward there may be some employees for whom a physical workplace will unfortunately continue to be too dangerous.

SIRIANNI: And while some workers have already figured out work arrangements or found new jobs that let them stay home, people in the disability community are contending with sky-high rates of unemployment.

COLKER: I can think of some anecdotes where some people who have been looking for work for a while have had a little more success during COVID. But given the terrifically high unemployment rate in the disability community, those anecdotes are not likely to tip the needle in a way that's dramatic.

SIRIANNI: Tipping the needle will come one worker at a time. Kristen Parisi knows what her post-pandemic work life will look like.

PARISI: I feel very lucky that I never have to have that stress of making that hour-and-a-half to two-hour commute again.

SIRIANNI: But for so many others facing similar challenges, things are much more uncertain.

Anna Sirianni, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELBOW SONG, "DEAR FRIENDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.