From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Older Workers Can’t Work From Home and Are At a Higher Risk For COVID-19
Date May 12, 2020 12:00 AM
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[Nearly three-fourths of workers age 65 and older—over 5 million
older workers—are unable to telecommute. That means that these
workers, who are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19,
could be putting themselves at risk to earn a paycheck.]
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OLDER WORKERS CAN’T WORK FROM HOME AND ARE AT A HIGHER RISK FOR
COVID-19  
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Elise Gould
March 31, 2020
Economic Policy Institute
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_ Nearly three-fourths of workers age 65 and older—over 5 million
older workers—are unable to telecommute. That means that these
workers, who are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19,
could be putting themselves at risk to earn a paycheck. _

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KEY TAKEAWAYS

* Nearly three-fourths of workers age 65 and older—or over 5
million older workers—are unable to telecommute. That means that
these workers, who are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19
because of their age, could be putting themselves at risk to earn a
paycheck.

* Policymakers can mitigate the damage from workplace exposure to the
coronavirus afflicting older and other highly vulnerable people by
designing unemployment insurance and paid sick days measures to
protect workers who are vulnerable themselves or who have vulnerable
family members.

* Specifically, policymakers should extend paid sick leave to all
employers, to at-risk workers, and to workers whose family members are
at risk. They should also ensure that older workers who have to quit
their job or lose pay due to the risks of COVID-19 are among the newly
eligible for unemployment insurance under the new $2.2 trillion
coronavirus package.

As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the United States, more and
more workers who are on the front lines of the economy are at risk,
but little attention has been paid to the impact on older workers, who
are among the most vulnerable.

Because testing is far from universal, official reports
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are likely to understate the extent of the pandemic, but it’s clear
that older adults are at higher risk for severe illness. The Center
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports
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that eight out of 10 deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. have been adults
ages 65 years old and older, and significant shares of older Americans
require hospitalization and admission to intensive care units.

At the same time, over 5 million workers age 65 years old and older
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economy could not work from home. Although some of these workers are
likely to be the ones who have been laid off or furloughed in recent
days, many will remain out in the workforce, going to work, risking
their own health and the health of their family members. And many more
workers—younger than age 65—will continue going to work and
potentially risking the health of their family members who are older
and/or have other health conditions that make them more vulnerable.

Earlier this month, my colleague Heidi Shierholz and I reported that
less than one in five black workers and roughly one in six Hispanic
workers
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are able to work from home. Low-wage workers and workers in leisure
and hospitality are also far less likely to be able to telework than
their higher-wage and white-collar counterparts. The figure below
examines the age distribution of telework options. The youngest of
workers are least likely to be able to work from home. This statistic
is not surprising when we consider the types of jobs many of these
young workers hold in the economy. However, the Bureau of Labor
Statistics also reports that only 25.5% of older workers can work from
home. This means nearly three-quarters—or over 5 million older
workers—cannot telework. And over two-thirds of 55- to 64-year-olds
cannot telework either; this represents another 15 million workers.

 
Older workers among the least likely to be able to teleworkShare of
workers who can telework, by age, 2017–2018

Age
Percent of total workers

15 to 24 years
6.7%

25 to 34 years
31.4%

35 to 44 years
36.2%

45 to 54 years
32.5%

55 to 64 years
32.2%

65 years and older
25.5%

 

 

 

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Job Flexibilities and Work
Schedules — 2017–2018 Data from the American Time Use Survey
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The CDC has made it clear that age is a significant risk factor for
serious health consequences of exposure to COVID-19, yet millions of
older workers put themselves on the front lines for a paycheck.
Furthermore, it’s likely that millions of younger workers who cannot
telework may be putting older family members at risk by going to work
themselves. In the pre-pandemic labor market, 8.4% of workers under
the age of 65—or about 13 million workers, according to analysis of
the Current Population Survey [[link removed]]—lived in
households with at least one member 65 and older. And many more
workers live with family members who have other risk factors, such as
asthma or serious heart conditions
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Since a significant share of the overall workforce (more than 70%
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cannot telework, this potentially puts millions of at-risk workers and
family members in harm’s way of contracting and having serious
complications from COVID-19.

There are a few ways to mitigate the damage. Specifically,
policymakers need to make sure the unemployment insurance system and
paid sick days provisions are designed to protect workers who are
vulnerable themselves or have vulnerable family members.

The recently enacted Families First Coronavirus Response Act
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requires certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave
or expanded family and medical leave for reasons related to COVID-19.
The relatively expansive qualifying reasons
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for leave cover, among others, those who are advised to stay home or
need to care for a family member. Unfortunately, the act does not
explicitly mention the need to stay home to lower the risk of exposure
for other family members who may be particularly vulnerable because of
their age or related health conditions. In addition to further
measures that expand coverage to all workers
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in general (the act leaves out those working for large employers, for
example), policymakers should consider extending paid leave to at-risk
workers themselves, as well as to workers whose family members who are
at risk.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act—the
$2.2 trillion coronavirus package that has been signed into law
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access to unemployment insurance for a variety of reasons related to
COVID-19. The CARES Act does appear
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to allow older workers to stay home and collect unemployment insurance
benefits if they have been advised by a health care provider to
self-quarantine or had to quit their job as a direct result of
COVID-19. There should be additional clarity to the CARES Act and
possibly additional legislation to align economic incentives with
health risks to ensure protections for these at-risk workers or for
workers who may put family members at additional risk if they continue
going to work.

Congress has taken important steps to protect workers and their
families from loss of income due to COVID-19, but it needs to do more
to protect workers—particularly those who cannot telework—from
exposing themselves or their family members in high-risk categories
from COVID-19 itself.

_Elise Gould joined EPI in 2003. Her research areas include wages,
poverty, inequality, economic mobility and health care._

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