Unemployment has soared during the coronavirus pandemic for all age groups, but none faster than for workers 55 and older. The Schwartz Centre for Economic Policy Analysis says by January 2021, 3 million older Americans lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
During the past year, the study found unemployment rates for workers over 55 exceeded that of mid-career employees. And for the first time in nearly 50 years, that gap persisted for more than six months. Many experts believe employers are using COVID-19 as an excuse to get rid of older workers.
This is not a new trend
Anti-discrimination advocates say similarities exist between employers’ actions towards older workers during the pandemic and after the last recession in 2008 during the global financial crisis. They say economic crises reinforce the stereotype for employers that older workers are different. Not only are they perceived as an intellectual liability, but a physical liability as well.
The AARP Foundation says older workers who become unemployed take nearly twice as long to get back into the workforce as their younger counterparts. Some may not return at all. A Missouri discrimination lawyer recounted the story of one of his clients; a 56-year-old woman let go after 28 years at her company, despite having stage four pancreatic cancer.
The company then immediately posted her position. She asked whether she could have her job back but was told she would have to reapply, and that the pay rate would revert to that of a new employee if rehired. The company eventually settled after the woman filed a disability and age discrimination lawsuit.
Will vaccinations reverse the trend?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which oversees age discrimination in the workplace, says it doesn’t have any data on older workers laid off due to the pandemic. The AARP Foundation says many older workers have given up looking for work, some due to health concerns over contracting the virus.
However, now that vaccinations are in full swing and a significant portion of older Americans have been vaccinated and others are at the front of the line, some believe they may begin to have an advantage in going back to work in states where younger workers still aren’t eligible to receive a shot.