Disability and the job churn

For disabled workers, it’s not enough to do more with less. In the new economy, you’ve got to do it with a 24/7 smile.
Author(s): 
July 1, 2018

Illustration of woman working at a computer

In 2016, Finance Minister Bill Morneau told reporters that millennials needed to get used to “job churn,” a career path eked out from short-term and precarious work. Prime Minister Trudeau welcomed the idea of the churn, saying that changing jobs frequently allowed workers to have new experiences. But treating growing precarity as the welcome and inevitable evolution of Canada’s job market shifts undue burden onto workers: if you are struggling to exist in this new system, it’s not the system’s fault. It’s yours for not being resilient enough.

The “job churn” celebrates the notion of the grind, glorifies busyness and encourages abandonment of any semblance of work/life balance. Good things come to those who hustle, we are told. This new intensified employment landscape, with its increased expectations and decreased protections for workers, is simply not a possibility for many people, and it leaves disabled Canadians totally sidelined.

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For the 10.1% of working-age Canadians who are disabled, struggling to find full employment is already a churn. Before getting to why that’s the case, some housekeeping on the term disability is needed.

For the purposes of this article, disabled workers are those individuals who are or want to be in the labour force who also have a physical or mental disability. Physical disabilities may be visible (related to mobility, for example) or invisible (chronic illnesses). Mental disabilities include mental illness (like post-traumatic stress disorder), neurodevelopmental disorders (autism) and learning disabilities (dyslexia). Statistics Canada delineates disability into 10 categories: pain related, dexterity, developmental, mobility, flexibility, hearing, mental health, memory, learning, and seeing.

Canadians with disabilities face exceptionally high rates of unemployment. Over 400,000 disabled working-age Canadians are currently unemployed despite being willing and able to work. While Canada’s unemployment rate is currently sitting at about 5.8%, the rate for disabled Canadians is much higher. Canadians with “mild” disabilities are most likely to find employment, and their unemployment rate is 35%. For those with “severe” disabilities, the rate jumps to 74%. Put another way, for every one person with a “severe” disability who finds work, three do not.

When disabled workers do find employment it is often in sales, and they make far less money than their abled counterparts. While the median personal income in 2012 for a Canadian worker was $31,200, for disabled workers it ranged from $10,800 to $24,200 depending on their disability type. “As a result,” researcher Michael Prince laments, “Canadians with disabilities have not seen the promise of equality of opportunity in the labour market fulfilled.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, the federal government introduced several anti-discrimination and employment equity measures designed to reduce barriers to employment. The Employment Equity Act, for example, requires employers to be proactive in identifying and eliminating employment barriers against persons in four designated groups: women, “visible minorities” or racialized people, people with disabilities, and Indigenous peoples. Similarly, the Canadian Human Rights Act states that employers have a duty to accommodate disabled employees and to take all steps short of undue hardship to eliminate discrimination.

But legislation on its own has not addressed the divide between disabled workers and the rest of the workforce. Between 13.5% and 34.6% of disabled workers believe they have been refused a job in the past five years because of their disability. More broadly, a recent BMO survey found that 48% of Canadians “believe a person is more likely to be hired or promoted if they hide their disability.” Given both these findings, it is not surprising that 20.4% to 36.7% of Canadian Survey on Disability (CSD) respondents reported that their employer was unaware of their disability.

More than 30 years after anti-discrimination measures were enacted, people with disabilities continue to face discrimination while looking for work and “experience additional disadvantages such as lower compensation and weaker job tenure,” according to CSD reports. Clearly, the work to eliminate discrimination and barriers facing disabled Canadians has been left unfinished.

Rather than assessing where the failures are in the policies we’ve enacted, our leaders are pressing ahead with unbridled enthusiasm into the churn, leaving disabled workers to navigate a gig economy with even fewer protections than the broken system we had before.

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The gig economy refers to an employment landscape wherein temporary positions are common, if not the norm, and organizations contract with independent labourers for parcels of work (bit jobs). Though the arrival of app-driven employers like Uber, Upwork and Hyr gets much of the attention when we talk about “job churn,” temp agencies, zero-hour contracts (i.e., short-notice retail shifts) and declining union membership all contribute to today’s rise in precarious forms of work. According to Randstad Canada, freelancers, independent contractors and consultants now make up 20-30% of the Canadian workforce. More notably, 85% of the companies surveyed by Randstad intend to adopt a more "agile workforce" in the near future.

What makes the gig economy so alluring for employers is that it shifts a great deal of risk and responsibility to workers. Gig employers have lower overhead costs. Drivers for Uber, for example, provide their own cars. Workers with Hyr are classified as independent contractors and, as such, restaurants hiring them need not contribute to their CPP or EI. Upwork allows firms to completely outsource all their creative and clerical needs.

So where do disabled workers fit in? Duty to accommodate states that employers are required to address employment barriers with one exception: the Bona Fide Occupational Requirement (BFOR). An employer can argue that they do not have a duty to accommodate if an aspect of a job cannot be modified or adapted without undue hardship for the employer.

The gig economy, which has stripped away employers’ responsibilities to their employees, has created an entire labour ecosystem within the BFOR loophole. It is a labour market that survives on nimbleness and just-in-time delivery of labour’s services, a system that by design does not have room for accommodation, especially not a disabled worker’s need for an adapted schedule or access to assistive devices, for example.

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While the gig economy is a subsection within Canada’s labour market, its ethos helps shape the broader employment environment wherein millennials (born between the early 1980s and early 2000s) are increasingly told that they need to settle for less.

The Poverty and Employment in Southern Ontario research project (PEPSO) reports that 52.9% of non-unionized workers aged 25-44 don’t have health benefits and 47.7% don’t have paid time off from work. Benefits are critically important for disabled workers as more than three-quarters of people with disabilities take prescription medication.

The medication issue speaks to the larger vulnerability that disabled workers now face in Canada’s changing labour landscape. Increasingly, disabled millennials looking for work are reading job postings whose details subtly suggest the employer is only interested in hiring abled workers.

In advance of writing this article, I asked a group of disabled millennials to tell me what key words in job postings cause them to self-select out of applying for work. At the top of the list were ideal candidate descriptors like plucky, high energy, able to go above and beyond, enthusiastic, and always on. When it comes to duty descriptions, the workers who spoke to me said their red flags were around being expected to take on extra evening and weekend work, and to strive for perfect attendance (sometimes incentivized through bonuses).

From these conversations, a clear image begins to form of the working world that disabled millennials navigate. Yes, Mr. Morneau, it is one that is shaped by churn culture.

These postings go beyond a mentality of doing less with more. They are looking for gig-style availability from their employees: always on, always ready to jump in on a project regardless of the hour, their health at the moment, and whether overtime will be compensated. Even job postings that end with accessibility statements paint a picture of their ideal candidate as someone who might need accommodation but would never ask for it—because they are so grateful for the work and so enthusiastic about being part of the team.

This climate leaves disabled millennials with an impossible choice: apply for jobs that expect the successful candidate to be “always on” and risk declining health to meet these expectations, or try to find a workplace that isn’t operating under a maximum extraction approach to management. Increasingly, those positions are harder and harder to find.

With the federal government celebrating flexible employment there’s an obvious lack of political will to ensure that disabled Canadians are able to pursue meaningful careers. It’s not enough to shrug off this marginalization of disabled workers as the cost of innovation. Over a million Canadians are waiting for the employment equity measures of the last century to take hold and for a guarantee that the coming churn won’t leave them in tatters.

Katie Raso is Digital Communications Officer at the CCPA and has worked with a variety of progressive organizations including Canadian Doctors for Medicare in Toronto and Media Democracy Days in Vancouver.

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