Older Workers Need To Stand Up As Covid-19 Knocks Them Down

The Covid-19 pandemic and recession hits older workers from two sides. First, older people are more likely to get sick, so being in the labor pool raises their risk of dying from Covid-19. Second, as New School economist Owen Davis found, older workers (ages 55 and older) are now experiencing persistently higher unemployment than mid-career workers (ages 35 to 54) for the first time since the mid-1970s.

The historic flip from lower to higher unemployment for older workers compared to mid-career workers, documented in the latest report from the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, shows that increased job loss and a slower recovery for older workers raises the risk of early and involuntary retirement. This leads to higher rates of downward mobility in retirement, or households falling from the middle class during their careers to poverty or near-poverty in retirement.

Between April and September, older workers did not bounce back as quickly from the slam experienced in March. They were, on average, 12 percent less likely than mid-career workers to return to work from unemployment.

What Older Workers Need From the Next President and Congress

Older workers need to stand up and demand more attention from lawmakers on how the Covid-19 disease and lack of a vaccine causes them unique losses which can last a lifetime. Older workers must fight for five policies: more unemployment benefits, better workplace safety protections, protections against age discrimination, better access to healthcare, and higher Social Security Benefits.

The federal government (once it starts to function) has to do more for the elderly and older workers. There are hardly any retirement-related provisions in the CARES Act, and the one which does exist—the suspension of penalties associated with early 401(k) withdrawals—is actually a step backward for equity and is not a relevant response. It is a provision that mainly helps the wealthy, not the unemployed and older workers lacking protective equipment or protection against mask-less or defiant customers and co-workers.

The House passed a new pandemic relief bill, the HEROES Act, but the Senate and President have stopped short of passing it. The enhanced unemployment benefits in the HEREOS act are especially important for older workers because older workers tend to experience longer spells of unemployment. Older workers would also benefit from a new round of stimulus checks.

Another benefit to older workers would be an empowered and engaged Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the regulatory body responsible for ensuring workplace safety (which was recently criticized for doing too little for at-risk workers). It would be especially harmful to older workers if Congress went through with the proposed liability waivers for businesses unwilling to protect workers from Covid-19. The Trump administration has purposefully walked away from an infectious disease order right when we need it most!

The Trump administration has also been weak on enforcing age discrimination statutes. Now more than ever we need to fight age discrimination, as older workers are among the hardest hit in the pandemic economy. One route to help them could be through Federal disability laws. While older workers are not disabled, the Covid-19 pandemic requires “reasonable accommodations” for workers with disabilities. The disease also puts older workers in a disabling situation through no fault of their own. But for now, the “reasonable accommodations” required for disabled workers do not apply to older workers. Extending these “reasonable accommodation” protections to older workers would be a direct way to keep more of them safely employed.

Additionally, older workers and their employers need to find ways to make healthcare cheaper. Lowering the Medicare age to 50 and making it first payer may lower the cost of hiring older workers for an employer. It would also cover the healthcare costs of older workers who lose their jobs and healthcare before the Medicare eligibility age of 65. And for the millions of workers pushed out of the labor force fairly permanently, Social Security expansion needs to be front and center.

Older workers are the largest voting block in the electorate. Their special needs are bound to be the beneath-the-surface factor in next week’s election.

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