Precarity more likely for older, new workers with disabilities

Higher likelihood of precarity in older workers with disabilities somewhat of a surprise, says study lead

Published: March 3, 2021

As precarious work has become a common feature in today’s labour market, a new study by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) set out to examine whether job precarity is more likely among workers with disabilities.

The study, led by IWH Scientist Dr. Arif Jetha, found that the risk of precarious work is no higher for employed people with disabilities than employed people without. However, it also found that disability can increase the likelihood of precarious work for some.

Specifically, the study found older adult workers with disabilities were 88 per cent more likely to have precarious jobs than younger adult workers with disabilities. It also found people with disabilities who were new on the job (i.e. who had shorter job tenure) were more likely to experience precarity than those who had been on the job longer.

In contrast, among workers without disabilities, no link was found between work precarity and either age or tenure. The study was published in December 2020, in the journal BMC Public Health (doi: 10.1186/s12889-020-09938-1).

The finding that older age was linked to a higher risk of job precarity among people with disabilities was somewhat of a surprise, says Jetha. We expected that the older you are, the stronger your foothold in the labour market, compared to younger adults. But that’s not what we saw among people with disabilities, he explains.

The study was based on a survey of 1,800 workers across all age groups, with and without disabilities, recruited from an existing panel. To identify workers with disabilities, survey participants were asked about the difficulties they faced at work that lasted (or were expected to last) six months or more, and that were related to a physical, cognitive, mental/emotional, sensory, or other disability. This measure of disability, developed by Statistics Canada, has been tested for reliability and validity.

Survey participants were also asked about their work and the impact of their health on work. As no commonly accepted measure of work precarity currently exists, Jetha’s study team categorized participants working in precarious jobs when they met all four of the following criteria: they worked part-time, in a non-permanent job, in a non-unionized setting and with low job control.

The findings showed similar proportions of survey participants with and without disabilities worked in permanent jobs and had full-time hours (about 90 per cent in both cases). In both groups, similar proportions (about 30 per cent) met all four criteria for working in precarious jobs. Among both participants with and without disabilities, those who said they had good health were 22 per cent less likely to work in precarious situations.

From a policy perspective, the findings suggest that certain segments of the population need additional support to address the risk of job precarity, says Jetha. He adds, however, that further research is needed to determine whether these findings can be generalized to people with disabilities at large.

He notes that in the general population, employment rates among people with disabilities are much lower than those among people without disabilities—ranging from 76 per cent for people with mild disabilities to 31 per cent for people with severe disabilities, according to 2017 data from Statistics Canada. The similarities in work profiles of people with and without disabilities in our sample suggests that we might be looking at a self-selected group of people with better work outcomes than average,” Jetha says. As a result, we need to be cautious in our interpretation of these findings.