Relief efforts need to do more to protect older workers in a coronavirus economic shutdown
- The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law last month, and earlier policy responses to the pandemic are steps in the right direction but don’t do enough to protect workers, including older workers, who are at much greater risk from COVID-19.
- Older workers who lose their jobs face harsh consequences. They have less time to make up for lost earnings and savings before retirement. Many have trouble being hired and retire before they’re ready. They’re often forced to accept large pay cuts because some skills and knowledge they’ve built up aren’t transferable and may be undervalued by prospective employers.
- While older workers are less likely to work in the hard-hit leisure and hospitality industries, many are employed in other sectors and occupations that could see large job losses, including public-sector occupations.
- Expanding access to paid sick and family leave is critical to the safety and well-being of older workers and their families, as are stronger health and safety protections for workers.
- The CARES Act makes some necessary changes to paid leave and unemployment insurance programs, but these reforms need to be made permanent or automatically extended as long as economic conditions warrant.
- Older workers with inadequate health and safety protections who stop working because they’re at higher risk of serious consequences from COVID-19 should be eligible for paid leave and unemployment benefits.
- Work-sharing programs that encourage employers to reduce hours rather than resort to layoffs would especially help older workers.
(This is part one of a two-part series of posts on the impact of the coronavirus on older workers and what needs to be done to mitigate the economic shock to this group.)
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law last month, and earlier policy responses to the pandemic are steps in the right direction but don’t do enough to protect workers, including older workers, who are at much greater risk from COVID-19.
Older workers ages 65 and older, though not those ages 55–64, are less likely to be able to work from home than most other workers; only workers ages 15–24 are less able to telecommute. These older workers—many of whom are on the front lines—are at much higher risk of dying or suffering serious consequences from COVID-19 than their younger counterparts.
Personal care aides are among the low-paid and high-risk occupations with a disproportionate share of older workers (personal care aides are also overwhelmingly women and disproportionately people of color and immigrants). Older workers are also somewhat more likely than their younger counterparts to be employed in hospitals and nursing homes. (Unless otherwise noted, all references to older workers’ employment shares are based on the author’s analysis of 2015–2017 American Community Survey microdata for workers ages 55–64.)
The federal response to the pandemic has so far done little to protect the health of older workers and others facing greater risk from exposure to the virus, who are faced with a daily choice between risking their lives and losing their livelihoods. Low-paid workers in particular are not only less able to work from home, they’re also more likely to rely on public transportation and share close living quarters, heightening the risk of contagion for themselves and their families.
Pandemic unemployment assistance and expanded paid leave provisions aren’t structured to allow older workers at high risk to stop working
The CARES Act extends Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) to many workers who lose their jobs for reasons related to COVID-19, including those with compromised immune systems who have been advised to self-quarantine by a doctor. However, it leaves much to the discretion of state administrators, who may not view age-related risk as a qualifying factor for unemployment assistance if a worker stops working voluntarily. In this unusual situation, protections afforded unionized workers in collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) don’t necessarily help, since many such CBA provisions require that layoffs happen in reverse order of seniority even if some older workers would prefer to be laid off rather than continue working.
The administration’s failure to establish and enforce workplace safety standards and ensure access to personal protective equipment is endangering millions of workers on the front lines of our emergency response, including older workers at much higher risk of serious complications from exposure to the virus. Workers who are being asked to put their lives at risk are engaging in work stoppages and other actions to protest the lack of attention to their predicament from employers and policymakers.
Expanding access to paid sick and family leave is critical to the safety and well-being of older workers and their families. As a recent analysis by EPI research associate Teresa Ghilarducci shows, 40% of older workers lack access to any paid leave, including many older workers in health care support occupations. Though the share of younger workers who lack paid leave is even higher than the share of older workers who lack it, older workers are more likely to be in poor health or to be taking care of elderly and at-risk family members than their younger counterparts.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires certain employers to provide paid sick leave to workers who need it for reasons related to the pandemic, including workers who have been advised by a doctor to self-quarantine or are showing symptoms and seeking a diagnosis. However, the legislation only requires employers to pay two-thirds of workers’ pay up to a limit and exempts large employers altogether. There are no special provisions for workers at heightened risk due to age or underlying medical conditions.
Extending economic relief measures provided to households and small businesses and expanding aid to state and local governments would help older workers
Looking beyond health risks, many older workers are at risk of permanent job loss. Some sectors leveled in the initial shock waves—hospitality, fitness, and entertainment—typically have younger workforces. But airlines and airline manufacturing, public transit, and other industries affected as travel and commerce grind to a halt employ many older workers. Many more older workers are likely to lose jobs in real estate and related occupations, including many janitors.
The relief measures in the CARES Act are a lifeline to these workers and their families. These include expanded unemployment benefits and direct payments to households that aren’t tied to eligibility for unemployment insurance, which leaves out many older part-time and low-paid workers.
Mending our threadbare unemployment system is a high priority for young and old alike. The CARES Act makes some necessary changes via the PUA program—expanding eligibility, benefit amounts, and the duration of benefits—but these reforms need to be made a permanent part of our Unemployment Insurance (UI) program or automatically extended as long as economic conditions warrant. Likewise, other relief measures in the CARES Act should be extended as long as they’re needed.
More federal aid to state and local governments—so far limited to a bump in Medicaid funding and a meager and onerous-to-claim $150 billion in the CARES Act—would cushion the blow to public-sector workers, who tend to be older than their private-sector counterparts. Aid to state and local governments would also prevent a public-sector contraction from slowing the recovery as happened in the Great Recession.
On a brighter note, the $350 billion allotted to small businesses—if it reaches them—could help older workers, who are more likely than their younger counterparts to be employed by smaller firms. Small business loans and subsidies could also help many independent contractors, who are disproportionately older workers.
Older workers would be among those hardest hit by a prolonged recession
While few workers will be unscathed if the economy fails to rebound quickly, the youngest and oldest are likely to be hurt most by a prolonged recession.
Older workers tend to be slower to lose their jobs in recessions because they have more work experience, but face harsh consequences when they do. They have less time to make up for lost earnings and savings before retirement yet are likely to remain unemployed longer. Many become “discouraged workers” who have given up on the job search and end up retiring before they’re ready.
Unemployed older workers who manage to find jobs are often forced to accept large pay cuts because some skills and knowledge they’ve built up aren’t transferable and may be undervalued by prospective employers. Employers’ reluctance to hire unemployed older workers tends to increases with the length of unemployment even if the duration of unemployment is due to economic conditions.
Meanwhile, relatively well-off older workers with retirement account savings may put off planned retirements in response to a plummeting stock market, with repercussions for workers farther down the career ladder. While a stock market downturn can benefit younger workers who are starting to save and can now “buy low,” older workers’ new contributions are outweighed by declines in the value of their holdings—a situation often made worse by the impulse to stem losses and sell before the market has a chance to rebound. While better-off younger households recouped their losses from the 2008–2009 financial crisis by 2016, most households—including better-off older households—were still playing catch-up six years later.
The quickest way to prop up the economy and help people pay their bills is direct payments to households regardless of age and employment status, as in the CARES Act. Initially, accessing these benefits required people to file tax returns, which was burdensome on retirees, including workers who were forced to retire early after losing their jobs in the pandemic. Many retirees don’t normally file tax returns since Social Security benefits are exempt up to a cap. This has been corrected thanks to pressure from groups representing Social Security recipients, but the new policy doesn’t apply to older Americans receiving Supplemental Security Income or Veterans Administration benefits.
The CARES Act that was signed into law is an improvement over the original draft, which would have funneled much of the aid through a cut in payroll taxes that fund Social Security and help fund Medicare. Payroll tax cuts are poorly targeted because high earners benefit the most while unemployed workers and retirees—who tend to spend aid quickly—get nothing. A relic of this provision remains in the final bill, which allows employers to defer their portion of the payroll tax until 2021 and 2022. Republicans’ insistence on this relatively ineffective form of stimulus is an attempt to advance the idea that Social Security contributions hurt the economy, setting the program up for future cuts and stymieing expansion efforts. The Washington Post reports that the administration is still mulling the idea of including a payroll tax cut in future legislation.
Older workers and others would benefit from expanded work-sharing
Because unemployment is so damaging to older workers and firm-specific skills and knowledge are lost when experienced workers lose jobs in a recession, state and federal policymakers should consider enacting and promoting work-sharing policies modeled on one used successfully in Germany in the Great Recession. These programs (also known as short-time compensation programs) encourage employers to reduce hours rather than lay off workers. They compensate workers who have had their hours reduced as a result of economic conditions as an alternative to requiring that workers be laid off before accessing unemployment benefits. Such policies are already in place—though underutilized—in some states. The CARES Act includes funding to states that have existing work-sharing programs or want to establish new programs, but employers may be unaware of this option.
Older workers at risk of permanent job loss aren’t the only group that would benefit from promoting work-sharing. Immigrants, including naturalized citizens and noncitizens with work authorization, are at greater risk of losing jobs permanently when employment ties are severed since their documents are more likely to have administrative errors that can trip up verification of work authorization. Older immigrant workers in particular may have trouble tracking down or replacing official documents needed to rectify errors.