Older Workers Face Health Risk and Job Loss During Pandemic

Written by Cassia Schuler on 08/17/2020

The pandemic is having an unprecedented impact on older working Americans, who are not only at an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 but are also facing significant job losses. In previous economic downturns, older workers experienced some protection due to seniority. However, older workers have been especially vulnerable during the coronavirus recession. In May, the combined rate of unemployment and underemployment for workers over 65 was 26%[1]. Workers aged 25 to 54 were only experiencing a rate of about 21%[2]. For older workers who are less educated, Black, or Latino, this combined rate is especially pronounced. Some industries are also more affected, including service and retail, which disproportionately affect female workers. The unemployment rate in April for women 55 and over was 15.5%, compared to only 12.1% for men[3]. Ageism is at play in the unemployment rates among older workers. Companies are fearful of their older employees getting infected, especially given that 8 out of 10 reported coronavirus deaths in the United States have been in adults 65 years and older[4].

Part-time workers were twice as likely to be unable to work in June compared to full-time workers, taking a further toll on older workers, who often work part-time for reasons relating to retirement and Social Security earnings[5]. Among older workers, 44% of civilians ages 65 to 75 and 50% of workers above 75 years of age work part time[6]. For comparison, only 19% of workers ages 25 to 49 and 22% of those ages 50 to 64 work part time[7]. The CARES Act included part-time workers in the $600 per week unemployment benefit that expired at the end of July, and though the weekly benefits have been extended through the end of the year by President Donald Trump’s recent executive order, payments have been reduced to $400[8].

Of special concern, older workers are also more likely to have chronic underlying health conditions that make them medically vulnerable. In turn, their out-of-pocket health care costs rise over time as they age. If laid off, these workers lose employer-provided insurance and must rely upon private market insurance, including COBRA. As only workers older than 65 qualify for Medicare, those under the age of 65 have few options. The loss of a job can force older people to go without coverage.

For older workers who fear the health risks of returning to the workplace, they are not guaranteed any accommodations based on their age. The combination of job loss and health risk is contributing to the increase in early retirement during the pandemic. Among people who left the workforce in early April, 60% retired, compared to 53% in January[9]. Early retirements may affect future economic stability, as people claim Social Security benefits at a younger age, resulting in lower payments.

Social security is a vital source of income for older adults, as 52% of all women and 45% of all men aged 65 and older depend on Social Security benefits for 50% or more of their family income[10]. A quarter of those aged 65 and over are living in families that depend on Social Security benefits for 90% or more of their income[11]. Though these benefits are often not enough for people to pay their expenses, Social Security has kept 37.8% of Americans over 65 out of poverty [12]. These benefits must increase. The Social Security Expansion Act proposes a way to fix this issue. This act introduces raising Social Security taxes for wealthier Americans in order to extend the solvency and benefits of the Social Security program[13]. Older adults, who are being hit especially hard by COVID-19 and the economic shutdowns, are not receiving sufficient relief and deserve our legislative support after years of working to support our economy.

Cassia Schuler attends Wellesley College, where she studies Environmental Science.

[1] Miller, Mark. “A Pandemic Problem for Older Workers: Will They Have to Retire Sooner?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 June 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/06/26/business/retirement-coronavirus.html.
[2] Ibid.
[3] https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2020/05/april-data-digest.pdf
[4] “Older Adults.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 June 2020, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/older-adults.html.
[5] https://www.bls.gov/cps/effects-of-the-coronavirus-covid-19-pandemic.htm
[6] https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2018/part-time-older-workers.pdf
[7] Ibid.
[8] Newburger, Emma. “Trump Signs Orders Aimed at Extending Some Pandemic Relief after Congress Fails to Reach a Deal.” CNBC, CNBC, 10 Aug. 2020, www.cnbc.com/2020/08/08/trump-signs-executive-order-on-coronavirus-relief.html.
[9] Miller, Mark. “A Pandemic Problem for Older Workers: Will They Have to Retire Sooner?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 June 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/06/26/business/retirement-coronavirus.html.
[11] Ibid.
[12] “Social Security Lifts More Americans Above Poverty Than Any Other Program.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2 Mar. 2020, www.cbpp.org/research/social-security/social-security-lifts-more-americans-above-poverty-than-any-other-program.