Do Older Workers Bear the Brunt of Coronavirus Unemployment?

Global HR

​Unemployment rates for workers 55 and older have exceeded those of midcareer workers for the entirety of the coronavirus pandemic. This is the first time since 1973 that such an unemployment gap has lasted for at least six months, according to authors of a study released by the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at The New School in New York City.

However, some experts believe the 55-and-over picture might be brighter than it first appears. In fact, they point to statistics showing workers 16 to 24 have lost more jobs than older workers.

“The higher rate of unemployment for older workers might be because this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for employers to shed older workers and not fear investigation by the Labor Department,” Teresa Ghilarducci, director of The New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, said to The Associated Press.

In every recession since the 1970s, older workers had consistently lower unemployment rates than midcareer workers (35-54), partly because of seniority, the study indicates.

However, in 2020, older workers lost jobs faster and returned to work slower than midcareer workers, the study shows. That produced an unemployment gap of 1.1 percentage points between older workers’ six-month average unemployment rate of 9.7 percent and midcareer workers’ rate of 8.6 percent, according to the study.

“In the current recession, this trend has flipped. In each month since the onset of the pandemic, older workers experienced higher unemployment rates than midcareer workers, representing a recovery gap in age,” the study authors wrote.

The situation is exacerbated by some older jobless Americans retiring sooner than they’d planned and with less retirement savings than they’d envisioned, according to the study. This involuntary retirement can artificially lower the official unemployment rate for older workers. A data analysis published in 2018 by ProPublica and the Urban Institute determined that 56 percent of U.S. workers over 50 were pushed out of their jobs by employers before they were ready to retire.

While praising The New School study as “fantastic,” Susan Weinstock, vice president of financial resilience programming at AARP, cautioned against reading too much into the results. She cited September statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics underscoring that younger workers are suffering more than older workers are.

16-19 15.9%
20-24 12.5%
25-34 8.7%
35-44 6.2%
45-54 6.5%
55+ 6.7%

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“It’s important to acknowledge that young people are also really hurting,” Weinstock said.

However, she was quick to point out that older workers run into more obstacles re-entering the workforce than younger workers do.

“The problem is that for older workers, getting back into the workforce once they’re laid off is really a high bar. They take almost double the time to find a new job than a younger worker,” Weinstock said. “And once they do find a new job, they rarely make the same salary they were making before they lost their job. It’s very painful.”

In many cases, older workers who lose their jobs wind up relying on freelance income. But for older workers who’ve held traditional jobs for a while, it can be tough to pivot to full-time freelancing, as their self-marketing skills might be rusty and their networking contacts might not be current.

Weinstock advises employers to consider hiring older workers, as research shows multigenerational teams boost productivity, increase engagement and reduce absenteeism. It would be a shame for workplaces to lose the valuable presence of 55-and-over employees, she said.

“Older workers have wonderful soft skills that they bring into the workplace,” Weinstock said. “They are calm under pressure; they are really good at problem-solving. They’re empathetic; they listen.”

In addition, older workers often maintain institutional knowledge, according to Weinstock.

One employer that’s actively recruiting older workers is CVS Health, which owns the CVS pharmacy chain, pharmacy benefits manager CVS Caremark and health insurer Aetna. In the fourth quarter of this year, CVS Health aims to add another 15,000 employees, mainly to fill jobs at CVS pharmacies but also for work-from-home customer service positions and other roles. Companywide, CVS Health now has about 32,000 job openings.

David Casey, head of diversity and workforce development at CVS Health, said his company has hired about 650 people age 55 and over in the past five years, including over 100 this year. That age group now represents about 15 percent of the company’s workforce.

“One of our goals is to make sure that we have a workforce that’s reflective of our customer base. We certainly believe that our customers can be best served by an employee base that understands their needs and understands their challenges as they relate to health care,” said Casey, citing a study indicating that 87 percent of Americans ages 62 to 85 fill at least one drug prescription per month.

“It’s not just a matter of doing the right thing to employ older Americans. It’s also good for business,” he added.

Casey urged HR professionals to welcome older workers into their workforces.

“Once you hire them, you will see for yourself. Give them a chance,” Casey said. “Mature workers aren’t asking for any handout. They’re only asking for an opportunity, just like anybody else. You have to get beyond the myth of what you think mature workers aren’t and experience what they are.”

In looking at hiring older workers, Heather Deyrieux, SHRM-SCP, president of the HR Florida State Council, an affiliate of the Society for Human Resource Management, said HR professionals should keep in mind that the layoff or furlough of a 55-and-over worker could be based solely on the pandemic recession and not reflect their talent or the quality of their work. Furthermore, Kimberly Cummings, founder of personal and professional development company Manifest Yourself LLC, pointed out that some unemployed older workers haven’t been laid off or furloughed but instead have accepted retirement buyouts.

Cummings said that as HR professionals seek to fill job openings, they should include older workers in diversity and inclusion initiatives that currently might be geared toward meeting race and gender objectives.

“For companies that have an evolved diversity and inclusion strategy, they’ll be looking across the gamut to make sure they’re getting different schools of thought, different demographics,” Cummings said.

John Egan is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas. 

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