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Older Workers Can’t Work From Home and Are At a Higher Risk For COVID-19

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 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 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 in the pre-pandemic 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 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%
 
 

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—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. Since a significant share of the overall workforce (more than 70%) 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 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 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 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—expands access to unemployment insurance for a variety of reasons related to COVID-19. The CARES Act does appear 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.