Danielle Mahoehney.

Jobless rates among people with disabilities soared in May to nearly 18 percent, almost triple the level from a year ago, as COVID-19 shut down much of the global economy. The gap in the unemployment rate between workers with and without disabilities also widened.

Almost overnight, as many employers had to close their doors, so did programs that employ workers with disabilities in group workshop settings. For some of these programs, however, the experience is accelerating a shift to emphasize more individualized, competitive employment opportunities aimed at closing the unemployment rate gap.

“We were well into individualized employment long before COVID,” said Dominique Berg of STEP Inc. in Fairmont, Minnesota, an organization founded in the 1960s that provides in-center employment, day habilitation, and skills training for competitive employment in the community, among other services. As the pandemic spread, the organization temporarily closed its facilities to in-center services, but continued counseling workers it had helped place in jobs. Many of those were frontline jobs in nursing homes and other workplaces that were deemed essential.

“It was a real test to see how everyone fared, and we did well,” said Berg. “All of the people we supported in individual employment either maintained their positions or stepped back due to underlying health conditions but are now coming back to their jobs. We walked them through this process and they stayed the course.”

Led by Sue Eisenmenger, STEP’s executive director, the organization also shared insights on moving forward the agency’s transformation goals in the midst of the pandemic. As part of the Minnesota Training and Technical Assistance Project—an initiative of the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts-Boston in partnership with the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota—about a dozen Minnesota service providers meet virtually to discuss ways to increase competitive, integrated employment.

“STEP is one of our partners that has really embraced the opportunity to make the transition to competitive employment even faster than they might have without the pandemic going on,” said Danielle Mahoehney (pictured), a program specialist at ICI. “They see the value in having more individualized options for people, and are focused not only on surviving, but progressing during this time.”