There are approximately 10 million individuals in the U.S. workforce who are 65 and older. As the pandemic begins to subside, most of these workers will want to return to work. The majority of senior employees need to return because they depend upon their wages. In addition, numerous older workers enjoy their job or they consider their work life as an integral part of their social community.
There are a myriad of critical issues to address for these workers and their employers as older Americans slowly return to work, post-COVID-19.
Health and Safety
Exposure to infection is a very cogent risk to those over 65, as that age group accounts for 80% of all deaths related to COVID-19. Underlying health conditions that can make individuals more likely to succumb to the disease are more prevalent in this same demographic: heart or lung disease, diabetes Type 2, or high blood pressure (to name but a few).
Currently, many older workers prefer to work remotely and will resist being called back to onsite work because of fear of infection. At this stage of re-opening of the economy, those over 65 can opt to stay at home, either working virtually or collecting unemployment compensation. Eventually, however, these older workers may have to make a choice: lose their jobs or go back and face a lessening, but still present, risk of infection.
And what about the risk to employers of bringing back senior workers? Many questions arise. Will they be held liable for failing to provide a safe work environment if someone (old or young) contracts the virus at work? How can the employer ensure that they are providing all the precautionary supplies, HR policies/procedures and work space accommodations to keep workers safe? Will older workers need more care and support than young ones and, if so, are they worth the extra time and expense?
Ageism Masquerading as Protection
With 40 million people jobless, some workers may feel resentment (and show that resentment) when older folks attain or keep a job desired by those of a younger generation. Studies have shown that bias against older workers already existed in the workplace prior to the pandemic, with perfectly competent senior individuals being forced to retire or simply rejected for better jobs or raises because they were "too old." The "too old" label is even more likely to be applied to those over 65 as mortality statistics prove that they are at high risk during this pandemic.
Because of the above cited health and safety issues, seniors may require more workplace adjustments and supports in order to safely return to their office, store, school or factory. Flexible work hours, physical relocation of desks and work spaces, extra sanitation procedures and other adaptions can make worksites a safer place for all employees, including older workers. Nonetheless, for employers and co-workers looking for an excuse to move seniors out the door, the "this is really for your own good" excuse will find enthusiastic supporters.
Unfortunately, this is an ideal time for ageist attitudes and practices to intensify, with the result that many older individuals will find they have lost their hard-won roles as valued employees.
The Resulting Financial Impact
A study published by the AARP indicates that pre-COVID-19 ageism cost our economy over $850 billion in GDP in 2018. The experience and know-how of discarded older workers creates a critical gap of expertise in businesses of all types. Losing the mentoring value of older workers hurts younger employees who need and deserve guidance and support from more experienced workers. Multigenerational work forces are proven to result in more successful, productive and financially sound businesses.
The average annual salary of a full time, over 65 worker is $47,000. Since workers earning this level of wage are unlikely to have extensive savings to maintain themselves as they grow older (and people are living much longer than ever before, with a 2020 life expectancy of 78.9 years), income from work is an extremely important personal financial support. While Social Security lifts 6.5 million seniors to just above the poverty line, it does not provide an adequate income without supplement for many older Americans,
Post-COVID-19 loss of employment options for those over 65 will have serious ramifications. Older Americans will feel the loss of wages in the resulting negative impact on elder housing options, healthcare access, nutrition, personal safety and overall quality and longevity of life.
What To Do?
In creating and enforcing legislation to get people back to work, those over 65 need to be remembered and their employment needs addressed. While the House of Representatives passed a bill to protect older workers against discrimination in January 2020, the Senate is not expected to pass the legislation and the Trump administration has promised to veto the bill in the unlikely case that it should arrive on his desk.
With additional emergency legislation to address the needs of all U.S. citizens during and after the pandemic disaster at an impasse, it appears unlikely that the needs of older workers will be addressed for some time to come.
This is the time for educational and lobbying groups such as AARP to offer guidelines and solutions, for both employers and employees, regarding older workers rejoining the workforce. Given the stakes on a national and an individual level, it is well worth the effort.