pandemic shows the value of remote work for employees with disabilities | Minnesota News


By CHRISTINE SCHUSTER, St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) – In the first few weeks of 2020, when a mysterious new virus started making headlines, Steve Romenesko, a resident of South St. Paul, watched the news closely.

In early March, with much still unknown about the rapidly spreading coronavirus, it became clear that the infectious disease would prove more deadly for organ transplant recipients like Romenesko.

“Whatever happens over the next two weeks, we’ll have to work from home just for my own safety,” Romenesko recalls, explaining to his colleagues at St. Olaf College in Northfield.

Today, 32-year-old Romenesko continues his work with college students through remote work accommodation.

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He is also part of a diverse group of disabled and chronically ill Minnesotans who are struggling to keep remote work and other virtual access accommodations going during – and possibly after – the COVID-19 pandemic, reported the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

“When put together the right way, I think we are at a crossroads of a wonderful opportunity to empower the disability community to get involved,” said Romenesko.

David Dively, executive director of the Minnesota Council on Disability, said people with disabilities have sought telecommuting capabilities for many years.

The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act both deal broadly with issues of discrimination and workplace accommodation.

However, Dively said it has been difficult over the years for people with disabilities to obtain telecommuting skills out of necessity for their health.

“There was extreme reluctance on the part of supervisors and human resource managers,” he said, adding that employers often worried about whether or not they had the capacity to accommodate telecommuting. for a disabled employee.

Dively said the disability community has not missed the irony of often being denied individual accommodations in the past, and now, during the pandemic, of watching entire businesses go to work remotely.

Yet, he said, this is the number of issues that have played out for decades.

“For some reason framing it as a disability rights issue automatically makes it harder to achieve, and it shouldn’t be,” he said.

Nikki Villavicencio, disability rights activist and member of Maplewood City Council, said policies to better serve people with disabilities would also benefit people without disabilities.

Villavicencio, 37, uses a wheelchair and has limited movement in his hands and arms due to a rare congenital joint disease called arthrogryposis.

“Technology, in particular, has been very important to my independence as a person with a disability,” she said.

She has spent years advocating for people with disabilities in Minnesota before state lawmakers and said the pandemic has helped advance some issues.

“We in the disability community in general have had a lot of victories this year,” she said.

One example is a federal law enacted last year that allows Minnesotans who receive SNAP benefits to use EBT cards to shop online.

“We live in Minnesota where most of the year it’s hard for someone like me to go to the grocery store, and that’s impossible when it’s 30 below zero,” Villavicencio said.

And, as she worked on the issue before the pandemic, the pandemic made it easier to attract the attention of lawmakers, she explained.

Villavicencio, who also chairs the Minnesota Council on Disability, said remote working and virtual accommodations help level the playing field for people with disabilities involved in state and local government.

“We have all had access to state government in the same way,” she said.

A wide range of disabilities enjoy protections under the ADA, including some people who experience the long-term effects of COVID-19.

Dively, a resident of Eagan who is himself hard of hearing and grew up with deaf parents, said the pandemic creates an opportunity to reshape public policy in a way that better serves people with disabilities.

“This is a pivotal moment for us and the work we do,” said Dively.

Maintaining and expanding remote work opportunities and virtual housing is essential, said Romenesko, a two-time liver transplant recipient.

Romenesko, who suffers from progressive liver disease, underwent another life-changing procedure shortly before the pandemic began: colon removal surgery for ulcerative colitis.

He said working remotely gave him more time and space to adjust to life with an ostomy bag, and it also helps him balance the ups and downs of chronic disease. .

“It’s really nice to have the comforts of my own home,” he said.

For people living with chronic illness, it’s unrealistic to take time off work every time you’re not feeling well, Romenesko explained. This is where working remotely offers some people a way to better manage their health and career.

Romenesko said there were a lot of days he didn’t feel well because of his chronic health issues, but there was less pressure to choose between going to work or looking after his health.

“It’s not a binary option anymore – and I think it’s really great,” he said.

In addition, he was able to avoid other seasonal viruses that usually cause longer and more serious illnesses in immunocompromised people like him.

In the community, Romenesko sits on the board of directors of the South St. Paul Library. The group has resumed face-to-face meetings, but it continues to join virtually and advocate for better housing.

Villavicencio, who is back to attend city council meetings in person, said she hoped lawmakers would look for new ways to allow officials the ability to participate in meetings virtually.

Under current laws, the possibility of holding virtual meetings is linked to local declarations of a state of emergency. In Maplewood and throughout Minnesota, there is no longer a local state of emergency.

Yet a future with better access for disabled Minnesotans depends on making policies with them in mind, Villavicencio said.

“If we make our communities work for the most marginalized, that will also work for the majority,” she said.

Copyright 2021 Associated press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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