This commentary is part of the American Worker series, which explores a range of critical topics that affect the American workforce. The series is sponsored by RAND Labor and Population.
Created by the Social Security Act of 1935, Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI), commonly referred to as Social Security, insures millions of American workers and their dependents against the complete loss of earnings (and for the disabled, health insurance) associated with permanent withdrawal from the labor force due to retirement or onset of a disabling health condition preventing work. Two trust funds—the OASI and Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Funds—provide for payment of these benefits.
As of June, the combined trust fund reserves are projected to be depleted in 2034, with the DI Trust Fund reserves becoming depleted in the second half of 2023 and the OASI Trust Fund depleted in 2035. With the DI Trust Fund the more pressing issue, several recent reform proposals have focused on strengthening employers' incentives to retain employees beginning to experience health problems that threaten their ability to continue to perform their job duties without some form of employer accommodation. If the DI Trust Fund is depleted, the Social Security Administration will only have enough funds to cover 80 percent of payments to current DI beneficiaries—necessitating a benefit cut or some other curtailment of benefits.
Despite the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 offers protections to workers with disabilities, surveys of employees experiencing work-limiting health problems consistently find a minority of workers reported receiving any kind of accommodation (e.g., changing their work schedule, providing equipment or other assistance, or modifying job duties) from their employer when their health first began to limit their ability to work. As a result, many workers with health problems that could work if they received an accommodation find themselves exiting the labor force entirely. This is particularly damaging to the U.S. economy when the labor force participation rate—the fraction of economically active adult Americans who work—has declined from over 66 percent to below 63 percent during the last decade.
At the same time, surveys of employers tend to report much higher accommodation rates of employees who come to them requesting assistance for a health problem. What could account for this discrepancy? A forthcoming RAND study offers an intriguing potential explanation. That study found that few employer characteristics, such as size and industry, explained which workers were accommodated for a health problem and which were not; instead certain employee characteristics—notably certain personality traits associated with assertiveness and open communication were strongly predictive of accommodation. This suggests that workers may have much more control over their situations than previously thought—in particular, over whether they actually make their concerns known to their employer and work with them to find an appropriate, mutually agreeable solution.
With a 36 percent chance of becoming disabled at least once before reaching age 50, it is imperative that workers know their rights under the ADA and the resources available to help them. Although the ADA mandates that employers provide “reasonable accommodation” of disabled workers except in cases of “undue hardship,” employers do not have to provide the specific accommodation requested by the employee. However, resources such as the Department of Labor's Job Accommodation Network offer free, expert assistance to employers and individuals on workplace accommodation and disability employment issues. With better communication between employees and employers, individuals experiencing health problems in the workplace may be able to bypass the Social Security Disability Insurance program entirely and continue to have long, productive working lives.
Kathleen Mullen is a senior economist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and director of the RAND Center for Disability Research; she is also an associate director of the Economics, Sociology, and Statistics Department and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.
Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.