“I’m sorry, but telecommuting isn’t possible for this job. You need to be onsite and in the office,” is something I—and many other disabled employees—have heard many times. I’ve heard it when formally requesting reasonable accommodations to work from home one or two days a week due to my progressive disability. I’ve also heard it during interviews, when I’ve asked hiring managers to gauge whether it’s worthwhile for me to proceed to the next step. The answer tends to be quick and negative. Suddenly, though, many of those same employers are being forced to figure out how their nonessential employees can work from home as states encourage social distancing during COVID-19.
Several of my friends who have jobs in publishing, college administration, bookstores, communications, and healthcare that don’t allow remote work are now working from home for the foreseeable future. I’m grateful these employees can now work from home, and I hope it leads many employers to permanently shift their telecommuting policies. When my disability symptoms started to worsen in 2016 and I began maxing out my sick days at an office job, I asked my supervisor if I could conference call into team meetings, which would allow me to work from home on days when I was too ill to come into the office (but not too ill to work from home with a heating pad and lots of medication). My supervisor denied my request, though I was a social-media manager who completed all my work on a laptop using remote-friendly tools like Trello, Basecamp, and Asana. I eventually took paid sick leave, and then I became so ill that I had to resign.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 25 percent of people work from home sometimes; 56 percent of workers could work from home at least part-time, if their employers allowed it, according to a Global Workplace Analytics analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Working from home is a necessity for many disabled and chronically ill folks and can be a huge benefit to anyone who’s a caregiver for children or other loved ones. There are many jobs, especially in media, publishing, and tech, that are done entirely independently and online, where meetings are the only real face-to-face necessity; these could, instead, be held over free video conferencing software such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Skype.
In the midst of COVID-19, Facebook, Microsoft, the New York Times, and other influential companies are embracing the flexibility and inclusive nature of remote work, leaving many people to wonder whether the fall out of the coronavirus will have a lasting impact on the way we work. Employers that were reluctant to adopt remote work when disabled employees requested it are now implementing major changes to preserve the health of everyone, even nondisabled folks. It’s unfortunate that corporations are only beginning to take these concerns seriously because this issue now impacts the livelihoods of nondisabled people. There’s a reason disabled people struggle to find work, and only 61 percent of men and 52 percent of women with disabilities are employed.
Many disabled people who are able to work are underpaid and underemployed, or paid a subminimum wage for their work. This leaves disabled people struggling to make ends meet, pay their student loan debt, build fulfilling careers, and get promoted to leadership positions where they can help foster accessible workplaces. Working from home isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution: It’s not an option in some industries or for certain roles, and some people are happier and more productive when they’re working in an office. But offering a remote option is essential to creating an accessible workplace that considers more opportunities for inclusive hiring.
Qualified employees who can’t afford to move to expensive cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, or San Francisco won’t be passed over for jobs in the tech, publishing, media, finance, and insurance companies. These kinds of work policies also take into consideration that larger cities are notoriously inaccessible: Approximately one in five subway stations in New York City is wheelchair accessible and NYC’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority also lacks proper access for d/Deaf, blind, and/or visually impaired riders. For book publishing, in particular, the lack of remote-friendly jobs contributes, in part, to an ongoing diversity issue. According to Lee & Low’s 2019 Diversity in Publishing Baseline Survey, 89 percent of those working in publishing are nondisabled, 76 percent are white, 97 percent are cisgender, and 81 percent are straight.
As we build remote work options and flexibility into our workplaces, we have to create regulations and policies that protect workers rather than forcing them to choose between coming into work sick and paying their bills.
Some NYC-based book publishers are allowing or even requesting their staff work from home, but outside of this pandemic, a majority of big-five publishers require employees to work on-site at their NYC offices. (For instance, 39 of the 57 open positions at Penguin Random House are based in NYC.) As we push for a more remote work-friendly culture, we must also advocate for more full-time and part-time remote jobs that include benefits. The media and tech industries already rely on freelancers and gig workers in lieu of hiring employees and around 36 percent of the American workforce are freelancers. While self-employment is an empowering choice for some people, it’s the only option for many because there are less full-time jobs with benefits and more “full-time freelance” opportunities that leave contractors vulnerable to economic precarity.
As we build remote work options and flexibility into our workplaces, we have to create regulations and policies that protect workers rather than forcing them to choose between coming into work sick and paying their bills. In California, independent contractors sent a letter to state officials calling them to ensure workers have access to benefits like statutory sick pay during the coronavirus. Even provisions that are being introduced to cushion the loss of income for hourly workers do nothing to protect gig workers, who are at the mercy of the companies they work for to make that decision.
Memes have been circulating about how the coronavirus is pushing governments to offer human rights. What if we pushed workers’ rights and remote work access and accommodations in the right direction at the same time? I know it would be a win for this communications manager and freelance journalist who’s worked from home full-time for the last three years—and used fewer sick days in three years combined than in one year at an office job. Put disabled workers first for once; after all, we have the best hacks for surviving social distancing.