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Ensuring Union Job Opportunities for Workers With Disabilities

By Heather Kerrigan | Jan 27, 2020

A little more than 1 in 4 adults lives with a disability, and many of these people struggle to find available union job opportunities. According to a 2019 study, the rate at which people with disabilities were hired into unionized positions declined more rapidly than for workers without disabilities between 2009 and 2017.


This doesn't reflect a general reluctance among employers to hire workers with disabilities — their labor force participation actually increased from 2017 to 2018. Instead, it seems to indicate that employers aren't as willing to hire disabled workers with union protections.


To reverse this trend, unions must partner with employers, advocacy groups and others to leverage their power and ensure everyone has a fair shot at unionized employment.


Training and Recruitment


To bring more workers with disabilities into the unionized labor force, unions must develop effective recruitment strategies with them in mind. They could partner with local disability support agencies or benefits offices to discuss the needs of the individuals seeking employment and distribute information on the advantages of union membership. Consider holding presentations on available positions with job seekers identified by these support agencies.


As job candidates are identified, unions can provide additional support by determining the skills the employer in question desires. From there, it's possible to connect the candidate with apprenticeship and training programs, online courses, classes offered by the union or employer, or other educational opportunities to align their skills with what the employer needs. Unions should also offer resources on resume building and interview skills.


For these activities to be effective, it's important to build a strong relationship with the employer — one that ensures workers with disabilities receive fair consideration for unionized positions. Good relationships with local business leaders help unions make their case for how accommodations support an employer's goals, as well as how certain workplace adjustments might benefit all workers. For example, the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America reported a situation in which a worker needed a $65 electric screwdriver to accommodate carpal tunnel. When all workers subsequently started using the electric screwdrivers, the employer saw a decrease in workers' compensation costs. Collaborating from the beginning increases chances that the union will be able to avoid later disagreements about accommodations and other workplace issues.


Worker Retention and Accommodation


A union's job doesn't end once the worker is in the door. Unions have a strong voice in the workplace, which can help protect disabled workers' rights enumerated in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and ensure they don't experience harassment on the job. Collective bargaining agreements should explicitly state what disabled workers — including those who become disabled during the course of employment, existing workers with a disability and any future hires — are entitled to, including job reassignment, reasonable accommodations and scheduling. It should also spell out the protections and recourse available if these workers feel that their rights have been violated. Ensure that the benefits package employers offer is able to medically support disabled workers through robust, affordable and accessible insurance coverage.


To create a workplace that supports disabled employees, designate union members who can answer workers' questions or concerns about accommodations. These people should also be responsible for explaining the value of union membership, verifying that the worker can access union information and inviting them to union functions.


Unions are well positioned to support workers with disabilities and ensure access to union job opportunities. By partnering with employers, advocacy groups and other disability rights organizations, the union can also help increase these individuals' rate of employment in union jobs. These recruitment, training and worker support programs may be somewhat tailored to needs of workers with disabilities — however, the general principles can also apply to anyone seeking unionized employment.


Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy, with a specific focus on public workforce, environment, health care, education and technology issues. Prior to co-founding River Horse Communications, Heather offered freelance editorial services to a variety of outlets, including serving as volume editor and lead author for SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and editor-in-chief of The Kanter Journal. Heather also blogs for two government-focused publications, GovLoop and NEOGOV, covering issues of importance to federal employees. Heather is the author of the book Retire Rich With Your 401(k) Plan. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The George Washington University.