While tech layoffs get headlines, stubborn labor shortages remain.
As of June, there were just 0.6 adults looking for work for the 10,000,000+ job openings in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — a number that has held steady since 2021. But these jobs don’t spark the media attention of formerly high-flying tech firms hitting harder times.
Yet, many companies never consider people with disabilities. And with October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month, it’s an opportunity to call attention to one of the most underutilized talent pools in the country — people with disabilities.
According to data from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as of July, transportation, health care, and social assistance, and the accommodation and food sectors have had the highest numbers of job openings. Consumers notice long lines at understaffed grocery stores, restaurants, and pharmacies, and resorts and hotels can’t book to their full capacity because of labor shortages.
That explains why a survey of retailers by software maker Fourth found that 87% of retail leaders listed hiring workers as their top business concern.
Filling frontline roles is a costly challenge. A survey of 181,891 hourly workers found that the turnover rate is 24% for half of those surveyed, and 50% for a quarter of the workers, with the cost of turnover estimated at $3,000 per employee. If you have to replace 24-50% of your employees every year, that’s expensive.
Look beyond traditional talent pools to people with disabilities
“For years, organizations have talked about the strategic value of expanding and diversifying their talent pipelines,” said Emily Rose McRae, Future of Work and Talent Analytics researcher in Gartner’s HR Practice. “Organizations can no longer meet their talent needs through traditional sourcing methods and candidate pools.”
One population that some companies are turning to is people with disabilities. Approximately 10% of working-age Americans have a disability. In 2022, the employment rate for working-age adults with disabilities was 35 percent, while the rate for persons without a disability in the same age group was 75%.
‘Our most dedicated employees’
“People with disabilities are some of our most dedicated employees,” said Julie Smith, HR Director for Soapy Joe’s, a 16-location car wash franchise in San Diego County, California. “They come to work, and they’re smiling. They’re ready for work. They’re excited for work.”
The car wash industry sees turnover rates of 100-300%, and Smith, who had prior experience with employees with disabilities, saw the opportunity. “I was familiar with the assets that adults with different abilities can bring to an organization,” she said. “Coming to Soapy Joe’s, I was a big advocate for bringing in the program because I knew it would solve many of the issues we were having with retention and turnover.”
Soapy Joe’s team include Jesus, an employee with a developmental disability in the firm’s National City location, who leads the company in sales of memberships that give customers discounted pre-paid car washes and give Soapy Joe’s recurring revenue. Jesus has entered a management training program to move up in the company.
‘We’ve only had good experiences’
In the grocery industry, turnover for frontline workers averages 48% for full-time employees and 67% for part-timers. To build a high-quality, long-term workforce, Raley’s, a family-owned supermarket chain, has been hiring people with disabilities for decades. “We’ve only had good experiences hiring people with disabilities,” said Store Team Leader Chyenne Moomey.
Case in point: Angela “Angie” Rao, who has a developmental disability, has worked for the company as a courtesy clerk for 32 years. “I call her my morning light,” said Danielle Bergmann, Angie’s Store Team Leader. “She’s probably one of the top five courtesy clerks I’ve ever had.”
That’s saying a lot, as Bergmann has worked for the company for 28 years. “She’s on time, eager to work, she has a smile for everyone, and the customers love her to the point of asking about her if she’s not there one day.”
It’s the quality of the work
It wasn’t so much turnover but quality control that led Thunder Valley Casino to tap a disabled workforce to reduce the cost and improve the hotel’s laundry service quality, which they were trucking three counties away. The 270,000-square-foot AAA Four Diamond resort generates 10,000 pounds of laundry each day.
“The employees bring so much joy to the workplace,” said Joel Moore, VP of Hotel Operations. “They are so happy to be out in the community, to have a job. It is infectious.”
That’s not to say retention and absenteeism are not benefits for the resort. “The level of absenteeism is lower than in other teams,” Moore said. “These employees stay longer because they love working here –they are not looking for their next job.” Advancement opportunities are also available. Some employees have moved into other areas, like food and custodial services, where they work more independently.
Misconceptions keep retailers and employers from turning to people with disabilities to address labor shortages. The Society for Human Resources Managers (SHRM) cites three “myths” that must be busted:
- People with disabilities aren’t qualified applicants
- Reasonable accommodation is expensive, and
- Managers can’t expect the same level of performance from employees with disabilities.
Regarding qualifications, “organizations will need to become more comfortable assessing candidates solely on their ability to perform in the role, not their credentials and prior experience,” Gartner’s McRae said.
Raley’s Bergmann agrees. “Hiring someone with a disability is not much different than hiring anybody,” she said. “You find out what they are good at, what they like and train them when you see gaps in their abilities.”
Accommodation is surprisingly easy in most cases. In a survey of 3,528 employers by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) 49.4% reported that the accommodations for employees with disabilities “cost absolutely nothing.”
For employers that incurred a one-time cost to accommodate employees with disabilities, the median expenditure was just $300. Additionally, job performance has proven equal, if not better, than workers without disabilities, so employers don’t have much to lose.