Coronavirus

COVID-19 Era Presents Unique Challenge for Older Workers

Back on the Clock

By Mark Morris

Meredith Wise

Meredith Wise says companies should regard older workers as valuable assets that can help them ramp up.

David Cruise knows how to help people navigate tough economic times, but admits COVID-19 is a different kind of event.

“Quite frankly, we’re doing this live,” he told BusinessWest. “We have no playbook.”

Since February, more than 1 million workers in Massachusetts have lost jobs as a result of COVID-19, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Cruise, president of MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, said nearly 35,000 workers filed new unemployment claims between February and May in Hampden County alone. One group in particular, workers age 55 and older, accounted for 20% of those new claims.

Job loss due to COVID-19 presents particular challenges for the 55-plus crowd. On top of the concern about finding a new job as an older worker, many worry that, because of their age, they face a higher risk of serious illness if they catch coronavirus.

Cruise expects many older workers will have an opportunity to go back to their prior jobs, but it may take time for that to happen. Because COVID-19 is still actively infecting people, he noted, career conversations with older workers must take into account a “fear factor” many have about returning to work.

“Our staff are trained to help people develop their career plans, and while they can be supportive, they’re not psychologists,” he said, adding that it can be a tough decision whether or not to return to work — one that’s ultimately up to each individual.

Cruise expects there will be more job search activity in July by older workers, but their prospects will depend largely on how successful the phased reopening has been and if employers are ready to start hiring again.

“Going forward, the whole notion of doing work away from the workplace could benefit many older workers, especially in industries where that type of work is encouraged and fostered. It could extend a person’s career and help maintain their financial, as well as their personal, health.”

As a first step, he recommends workers talk to the employer they recently separated from to see what kind of opportunities might be there, even in a different role. If it’s not possible to return to that employer, openings in other industries might be available.

“There are certain industries where I think older workers will find themselves in significant demand, if not full-time, certainly part-time,” he said.

He also thinks many people will seek out training in new fields, including ones that allow working from home. Those who have health concerns about returning to the workplace may find their next opportunity in a remote job. Cruise said this would be good fit for older people with a good work ethic, time-management skills, and self-discipline.

“Going forward, the whole notion of doing work away from the workplace could benefit many older workers, especially in industries where that type of work is encouraged and fostered,” he said. “It could extend a person’s career and help maintain their financial, as well as their personal, health.”

With so many Baby Boomers retiring, experienced workers are wanted and needed, according to Tricia Canavan, president and CEO of United Personnel. Hiring managers recognize that workers in their 50s still have 10 to 15 years of good work ahead of them.

“Employers are interested in people who bring a good work ethic, have skills, and are reliable,” Canavan said. “We have no issue placing older workers because our clients want employees who have those characteristics.”

Cruise advises older workers to think about who in their personal and professional networks are in a position to help them, or at least provide some guidance to finding work. “It’s essential for people to stay connected and to not leave any person untapped who might be helpful, even your dentist or your barber.”

Maintaining technology skills are another key for older workers. If a person was using technology before being laid off, Cruise said their skills are most likely in good shape. On the other hand, those who did not use technology in their job and now only use it socially may want to consider training to boost their skills and expand their job prospects.

“Technology keeps changing, and it’s possible that we all may need to develop new skills in the way we work because of the pandemic,” he added.

Because these skills can be easily updated, Canavan said a person’s “tech savvy” should not be a deal breaker when they are looking for work. “The hiring philosophy I share with my clients is: hire smart, hire the right person for the job. You can teach someone how to use Slack, but finding someone with initiative and the right mindset is harder to teach.”

When to Return?

For now, many careers are up in the air, at least until the state’s reopening progresses further. And in many cases, some are choosing not to return to work immediately.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the DOL encouraged some flexibility with unemployment claims to make it easier to comply with social-distancing guidelines. As a result, the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) put in place emergency regulations that allowed those who could return to work to keep receiving unemployment benefits for personal health reasons or concern about the health of others in their home, even if they had not been diagnosed with COVID-19.

That emergency regulation expired on June 14. As shuttered businesses begin to reopen, workers who are offered their jobs by their prior employer are expected to accept them. Refusal — unless that refusal is deemed reasonable — would mean losing their unemployment benefits and termination by their employer. The DUA said determining what’s reasonable involves a fact-specific inquiry into the person’s health situation and whether they work with or near other employees or the public.

In addition to fear, finances are another disincentive to return to work. Those who lost jobs at the beginning of the pandemic could apply for traditional unemployment benefits, which cover roughly 50% of a person’s average earnings. Then in March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which added $600 a week in addition to state unemployment benefits.

Business owners who depend on seasonal workers during the spring and summer months have told BusinessWest they are having trouble filling open positions because of the generous payments from the CARES Act. They say it creates a situation where people can make more money unemployed than if they took the seasonal jobs that are available. Unless it’s reauthorized by Congress, however, the CARES Act is scheduled to expire at the end of July.

A company’s ability to reopen — and quickly get back up to speed — may depend in part on how they acted before COVID-19 hit. Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, said some of her organization’s member companies are easily getting people to come back to work because of a well-established culture that keeps people engaged.

“The leaders have stayed in touch with people, they respect their employees, and they’re trying to do everything they can to create a safe environment for them,” she said, adding that, when employees are engaged, they want to be back at work because there is a mutual trust.

It’s a different story when a company has not communicated well and has allowed distrust to take root.

“For example, if a company has done a shoddy job of keeping up their facilities before COVID hit, why should employees trust them with proper cleaning and sanitizing now?”

Canavan echoed the importance of paying attention to worker safety. After visiting several manufacturing clients, she was impressed with the transformation they’ve done to comply with pandemic-related guidelines.

“They’ve completely retooled their facilities to ensure social distancing, and when that’s not possible, they’re putting up physical barriers,” she said. “Many have extensive policies in place regarding hygiene at work, frequency of washing your hands, and even how to get water out of the water cooler.”

Added Value

The impact of COVID-19 on older workers’ employment is something Cruise predicts will become clearer over the next six months. He is concerned that not just older workers, but younger ones — in the 18-to-24 group — may be more likely to permanently lose their jobs due to the pandemic than other groups.

With three and even four generations in some workplaces, Canavan stressed the opportunity to take a collaborative approach and learn from each other. “The members of my team are of different ages, and they all contribute different strengths based on their life and work experience,” she said.

Might companies use COVID-19 as an excuse to shed older workers? Wise said a few might, but many companies will not because they need the institutional knowledge that older individuals bring to the job. She said very few companies have effective succession planning or make a concerted effort to transfer knowledge, so they need experienced workers to get them back up to speed.

“Whether it’s an operator who knows the ins and outs of a machine or a salesperson who knows what certain customers like, companies need these people to come back to the workplace.”

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