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Job market for people with disabilities in Poland

Statistics clearly show that unemployment among people with disabilities in Poland is decreasing. Behind these figures, however, there are many stories of individuals who believe that a growth in employment does not necessarily go hand in hand with creating an open atmosphere in companies. Is the Polish labour market friendly to people with disabilities?

June 22, 2021 - Katarzyna Rodacka - Issue 4 2021MagazineStories and ideasTackling Prejudice

Photo: (CC) http://www.watchdogpfron.pl/

Martyna has a university degree and has been in the labour market since 2009. Currently, she works in an international company. Before this, almost all of her work was connected with PFRON, a state body that assists disabled people, and was associated with the fact that Martyna is a person with a disability. She was born without a left hand and her first eight years of working life were marked by unemployment or minimum wage jobs. Previously, she studied applied linguistics and was one of the best students in her class. She has also been improving her skills in this field outside university. She admits that many companies are open to employing people with disabilities and that these groups often boast about their employment statistics. Despite this, most people with disabilities are employed in positions below their level of qualification. Martyna explains that “nobody employs people with disabilities for managerial positions, even if they are capable of doing the job”. She always dreamed of being a translator. So, after graduation, she looked for a job in this field.

“I must admit that the translation market itself is difficult and hard to break into. But when I went to the interview, the recruiter quickly looked away from my hand, it was obvious that he was flustered. They asked me several times, as if they had caught me lying, if I could do the things that I mentioned on my CV, for example typing. One recruiter directly told me that she writes on the keyboard with both hands. I do not know, maybe I just had bad job interviews. But I think that an able-bodied girl who has the same abilities as me and who, like me, would know exactly what she wants in life, would not take jobs that have nothing to do with her skills and plans, just because of desperation,” Martyna says.

Not everything is visible in the stats

Tomasz, who has cerebral palsy, uses an electric wheelchair. He has problems with motor coordination and is a speechless person. From the beginning, he was looking for a remote job. He studied by distance learning, so he hoped that he would also be able to find work through his network. However, this was in 2006 when remote work was still very rare, so it was too difficult for him to find this kind of job. After graduating, he looked for a job again. It took him about a year and a half to find one. Right from his first message to potential employers, he had to inform the company that he could not communicate by phone.

 “In my CV, next to the telephone number, I always add that contact is possible only via SMS, because I don’t speak,” Tomasz says. “I have always tried to explain in my cover letter what my strengthes and skills are, despite my health situation. But let’s be honest – who reads your CV cover to cover? If the recruiter sees that the candidate does not speak, I think the employer will immediately think that there will be some problems with such an employee.” Currently, he works as an IT specialist in digital accessibility, and recently part-time at the foundation “Eudajmonia”.

People with disabilities, like everyone else, are determined to find a job. But as Martyna says, the first job often ultimately defines the professional life of people with disabilities. Even if it is a poorly paid job, with no opportunity to earn better wages or a higher position, they do not want to give it up for fear that no one else will hire them. She adds that “disability easily turns into a class factor. Especially because for many employers, people with disabilities are a cheap workforce.”

According to government data for 2019, the unemployment rate among disabled people is 7.2 per cent. Compared to the previous years, this is a good result, as unemployment among people with disabilities in 2015 was at 13 per cent. It is also worth looking at the employment rate. In 2019, it was 26.8 per cent, representing an increase of 0.6 per cent compared to the previous year. Both trends are definitely going in the right direction. However, if we compare these statistics with the employment situation among non-disabled people, there is still a lot to do. The employment rate for non-disabled people for 2019 was 78.4 per cent, whilst the unemployment rate was 3.4 per cent. Although these numbers seem to show that Polish employers are more and more willing to employ people with disabilities, many of them are simply “not ready” for it. At least, that is what these groups say in conversations with specialists.

Dr Tomasz Dąbrowski, one of the founders of the Diversity Hub think tank, which supports companies in the field of diversity management, often hears this argument about companies being ready. This is quite a surprising situation, as an employer who wants to hire a person with a disability certificate can get financial support from the state. Depending on the employee’s degree of disability (severe, moderate or light), the state agency PFRON may provide monthly co-financing for the employee’s wages to the amount of 1,800, 1,125 or 450 Polish zlotys. In addition, the employer is entitled to another subsidy of 600 zlotys if the employee is blind, has epilepsy or has been diagnosed with a mental illness. The employer will also receive reimbursement for costs related to training, adapting the employee’s workplace, and the employment of an assistant if it is necessary. 

Hence, there are quite a lot of advertisements on the internet from companies looking for such employees. The impression, therefore, is that it is easy for people with disabilities to find a job. However, this is often unskilled work for a low salary. In addition, it often turns out that the employer is looking for a person with a specific disability, such as blindness, as they will receive more funding from PFRON for employing such a person. Taking into account all of these issues, are Polish employers really willing to employ people with disabilities?

Responsibilities of HR

Ewa has been working in a human resources department for 25 years. During the first years of her career, when a person with disabilities applied to her company, she thought that employment would be very complicated from the point of view of law and logistics. Therefore, the best solution was not to hire such people at all.

“I knew there were some special laws on this, but I did not want to worry about it anymore. I avoided such situations,” she admits. As a result, she did not know what to do if her company wanted to hire a person with a disability. Her colleagues also had no experience in this. “We all decided that it was better not to hire such an employee, because we do not know what will come out of it”, Ewa says.

The issues of employing people with disabilities are regulated by Polish law. A company that employs at least 25 full-time employees is obliged to fill six per cent of its positions with people who have a disability certificate. If it does not achieve such rates, it must make additional contributions to the PFRON. “In addition, if a company exceeds this figure, it can receive a subsidy for each employee with a disability certificate. However, a problem arises when enterprises employ people with disabilities only for financial benefits, and at the same time do not create a friendly work environment for them,” says Anna Zaroda-Dąbrowska, president of the Diversity Hub.

In reality, it is not only about employing an employee, but also about creating a friendly work atmosphere. This was noticed by Ewa, who eventually changed her job. Her new environment was much more open. Her new associates also knew the laws regarding the employment of people with disabilities very well and were willing to hire such workers. The employment of people with disabilities is not only a matter of conscious recruiting in the HR department. Even if an employee with a disability is hired by an employer who would like to create an open workplace, they often end up working in a subordinate position. Then, it often turns out that there is a lack of well-trained managerial staff who can manage a team that includes a person with disabilities.

 “Managers need to know how to explain to the rest of the team why this person works seven hours a day for the same wage, why s/he has more vacation time,” Ewa explains. “He or she must know how to arrange the schedule correctly, especially in the case of shift work, because a person with disabilities cannot work at night. It is the leader of a team who must ensure that there are no conflicts in the group for this reason.” It often happens that the team will not accept an employee with a disability. In these situations, employees who do not feel accepted risk getting fired.

“It’s always a very unpleasant situation for us. As the HR department, we want to build a diverse and friendly work environment, and such people leave due to other employees’ lack of training. However, if the employer takes care of this issue, the company will gain a lot from it, not only financially. Thanks to its openness to accepting people with disabilities, the company is more empathetic and sensitive overall. This approach is good for every employee,” she adds.

Communicating with the employer

It is not always so easy to create a friendly work environment, as Martyna saw at her interview when the recruiters reacted at the sight of her disability. These people behaved in this way because we as a society are not used to seeing people with disabilities. This gives a broader picture as to why it is harder for people with disabilities to find a job, even in a friendly environment. Managers are usually in contact with their employees everyday. Unfortunately, sometimes they just do not know how to behave.

“Often during our training sessions, companies ask for a textbook because people really don’t know how to behave towards a person with a disability. Sometimes we feel like we need to be overly protective of such people, even though we don’t want to do this. However, the managers cannot be blamed for such concerns. They often do not know how to behave, because we, as people in general, are not familiar with dealing with people with disabilities. Most of us would have similar concerns,” explains Zaroda-Dąbrowska.

According to Martyna, those who see a disability immediately think about the trauma carried by that person. Also in the media, people with disabilities are most often presented only in the context of suffering and the struggle for equality. At the moment, there is a distinct lack of people with disabilities in the media who could comment on such topics from a specialist standpoint. She adds that “the able-bodied majority is isolated from people with disabilities. This causes a growing number of harmful stereotypes suggesting that people with disabilities are demanding, weak and clumsy. Added to all of this is the common belief and fear among employers that hiring someone with a disability will result in gigantic fines if the company does not adapt the workplace right away.”

Tomasz has also talked about various stereotypes that are still impacting the employment rate among people with disabilities: “people with disabilities are still associated with social care, a lack of resourcefulness in life,” he says. “They are perceived as people who must always be helped. For the majority of society, we are still only the recipients, unable to offer anything in return. Can such a person be a good worker in the eyes of an employer?” Despite this, he adds that the problem also lies with people with disabilities themselves and in their immediate environment. This teaches them from the very beginning that they should be given special treatment in all aspects of life, such as in school, university and work. He adds, “What is the conclusion? Do we just pat such a person on the back and say that they are a good friend or employee? This will always be taken with a grain of salt.”

Taking these reasons into account, not all jobseekers inform future employers about their disability. Reflecting on her experience, Ewa explains that only people with moderate or severe disabilities openly informed her company. This is especially true when the disability is visible or when it is impossible not to ask about potential accessibility issues regarding an interview. People who have mild disabilities often do not mention it. According to the law, these people are not entitled to additional benefits, such as a seven hour working day or an additional ten days of so-called “rehabilitation leave”. They will often not admit their disability for fear that no one will hire them. Benefits are, however, available to people with moderate disabilities.

“It happens, however, that candidates for managerial positions hide even a moderate disability. They will lose access to these benefits by doing this, but they are afraid that this will result in them not getting the job. It is well known that such positions are task-oriented, and that the working time is sometimes different,” Ewa explains. Moreover, when such a person finds work and notices that the environment is unfriendly, they will often not disclose information about their disability. Despite this, Ewa’s 25 years of experience shows that people are increasingly talking about their disability at work. This is because employers are now more appreciative of diversity in Poland. Ewa also has noticed that more and more people with disabilities are informing potential employers about their benefits. These candidates may also encourage the manager or employer to read about such matters.

An improved work environment

However, Tomasz is still trying to understand employers who do not employ people with disabilities and do not know the laws related to this issue. He believes that “there is a lack of social awareness and government actions or campaigns that could increase people’s knowledge. It is well known that entrepreneurs already have a lot of work and they do not need to complicate their lives with learning about various laws. Due to this, these laws should be presented in an attractive and accessible way.”

Many employers remain afraid of potentially complicated laws. However, the law now encourages these groups to engage with disabled people by offering financial benefits. Overall, companies are increasingly open to the benefits of a friendly work environment. The founders of Diversity Hub have highlighted the advantages of attracting candidates who are not represented in the labour market today, stating that “if people with disabilities do well in a company, they will attract their friends to work. These employees, which are hired on recommendation, are often more loyal and committed. In addition, diversity results in different points of view and multiple perspectives. The company is only a step away from becoming more innovative, breaking out of its usual patterns, and solving problems in a new way.”

A company that is diverse in terms of employees can adapt more easily to issues as a whole organisation. It can react faster to a changing market. It is also worth placing importance on employee development. Those who work in an open environment have pointed out that they have changed their attitude and have become more tolerant and open. They often add that this is what acceptance is all about, because an open work environment increases the quality of all of our lives.

Katarzyna Rodacka is a specialist in Iranian studies and a journalist. She focuses on such issues as human rights, post-conflicts areas and social initiatives.

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