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Older workers can’t telecommute, raising risks

Older workers can't telecommute, raising risks


Older workers can’t telecommute, raising risks

Aimee Picchi
Special to USA TODAYPublished 3:31 PM EDT Jun 19, 2020Mari Madlem says she has plenty of worries about going back to work during the coronavirus pandemic.But the 69-year-old from Portland, Oregon, doesn’t have the option of telecommuting since she works as a cosmetics saleswoman at an upscale department store.“I really have a lot of contact with people,” she says, adding that she’s anxious about whether co-workers and customers will take precautions like wearing masks. “If I don’t go back, I’m out of work.”Despite her fears, Madlem is planning on returning because her monthly Social Security benefit of $1,240 isn’t enough to live on. Although her employer hasn’t given her a return date, she expects to be back at the store later this summer.And Madlem isn’t alone in her dilemma: Many of the nation’s 10.5 million workers over 65 are facing questions as businesses reopen and states lift their “stay-at-home” orders.Unemployment:1.5M workers file for unemployment amid COVID-19 even as states let businesses reopenAunt Jemima to end: First Aunt Jemima, now Uncle Ben’s: Rice brand plans to ‘evolve’ and change ‘visual brand identity’Older workers are less likely than younger ones to have jobs that can be done remotely, according to an analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. Almost 8 in 10 workers over 65 can’t telecommute, compared with about 6 in 10 between 35 to 44, the analysis found.At the same time, older Americans may be at higher risk of complications from the coronavirus due to their higher rate of chronic health issues.“There are two elements of having a safe job if you are an older worker,” says Teresa Ghilarducci, a labor economist and expert in retirement security at the New School for Social Research. “One, if you can work from home. And two, if you do work in a workplace, if you can stay apart from others. Older workers are less likely to have those safe jobs.”That’s due to a number of factors, Ghilarducci says. Older workers are less likely than younger ones to work in tech and finance, two industries where it’s easier to telecommute. Men over 62 years old are most likely to work as delivery workers, truck drivers and janitors, while women over 62 are most likely to hold jobs as teachers, administrative assistants and personal care aides, the Urban Institute found in a 2017 study.Pushed out?At the same time, advocates worry that employers will use the pandemic as an excuse to lay off older employees. Already, the unemployment rate for workers over 65 has more than tripled, jumping to 13.2% in May from 3.7% in March, according to the Federal Reserve of St. Louis.While that’s roughly on par with the jobless rates for all workers, that might not tell the whole story. After the pandemic hit, there was a 7 percentage point increase in the number of Americans claiming they were retired, according to recent research from the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute. That suggests that some older workers are taking earlier retirement due to COVID-19, the researchers said.Think hard before retiringThat might reflect older workers stepping back from the workforce because they are concerned about the health implications of the pandemic, says Susan Weinstock, vice president of financial resilience at AARP. But it could also reflect “a concern that they have been pushed out of the workforce because of COVID-19,” she adds.Older workers should think long and hard about leaving the workforce before they’re ready, says Ghilarducci. “Taking retirement before you planned is very harmful,” Ghilarducci adds.An unplanned retirement can lead to a financial hit for a number of reasons, such as drawing down retirement savings more quickly than expected, she adds.Ask about safetyOlder workers should ask their employers about safety protocols for returning to the job, such as social distancing and whether workers and customers will be required to wear masks, says AARP’s Weinstock. “It’s key that employers really take this seriously as far as protecting their employees, and really look at being as thoughtful as they can about bringing them back,” she adds.That’s advice that Sterling Lewis, a 64-year-old Macy’s employee in New York City, is taking to heart. He says he’s looking forward to returning to his job selling luggage when his furlough ends on June 22. But Lewis, a member of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union Local 1-S, has some questions for his manager.For instance, he wants to make sure the department store will be providing good quality masks to its workers.“Health-wise, this is important, not just for the employees but the customers,” he says. “The virus thing — it is scary.”Aimee Picchi is a business journalist whose work appears in publications including USA TODAY, CBS News and Consumer Reports. She spent almost a decade covering tech and media for Bloomberg News. You can find her on Twitter at @aimeepicchi.

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