Unmet Need for Workplace Accommodation

Nicole Maestas, Kathleen Mullen

NBER Disability Research Center Paper No. NB 15-07
Issued in September 2015

We use experimental survey methods in a nationally representative survey to test alternative ways of eliciting the size of the population for whom a workplace accommodation for one’s health would increase their ability to work, and the rate at which these individuals receive workplace accommodation. We have five key findings. First, consistent with the high lifetime incidence of disability estimated by SSA, 35 percent of people between the ages of 18-70 report health problems that affect their work performance. Second, a sizable group of people report receiving health-related accommodations from their employers, but do not report work limitations per se. Our interpretation of this finding is that these individuals do not experience work limitations precisely because their health problems are fully accommodated. Third, question order in disability surveys matters. We present suggestive evidence of priming effects that lead people to understate accommodation when first asked about very severe disabilities. Our fourth finding follows from these results: when all respondents are asked about healthrelated workplace accommodations (not just those reporting work limitations), the measured accommodation rate is substantially higher. We estimate that the rate of accommodation among accommodation-sensitive individuals who are employed is 60-61 percent—two to three times higher than existing estimates in the literature. Finally, we find that 54-59 percent of accommodation-sensitive individuals (both employed and not employed) would benefit from some kind of employer accommodation to either sustain or commence work. This estimate of unmet need for accommodation is substantially lower than previous estimates, though still economically large.

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