If you’re a worker over 65, nothing says you’re old like a state advisory exhorting you to stay home as Massachusetts begins to loosen its lockdown and reopen for business.
Governor Charlie Baker issued a new “safer at home advisory" this week — “not an order,” he hastened to say — as part of his detailed road map for rousing the state economy after 10 weeks of hibernation. It asked employees 65 and older and those with health conditions to remain quarantined as their younger colleagues start returning.
The advisory was made in the name of safety. Massachusetts officials are encouraging employers to limit the number of workers they bring back to contain infections of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 6,000 state residents. But for some in what public health officials have deemed the high-risk demographic, the idea of an official policy separating them from others stings.
“It’s one thing if everyone’s working from home,” said Alicia H. Munnell, 77, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. “There’s no secret talk in the hallway. But if 80 percent of the people are back, you can feel left out.”
There’s also the question of self-perception, no small matter in the workplace. Len Fishman, the 68-year-old director of the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said he’s among many active employees with “a self-image that is quite a bit younger” than their age.
In the COVID-19 era, however, “There’s never been such a bright line between workers of different ages," he said. "We’ve spent decades trying to break down barriers between the generations. But now the science is telling us that regardless of all that, there is a difference and older people are more vulnerable to the pandemic.”
The dilemma may be academic for white-collar employees, at least for now, because financial, technology, and professional services companies are loath to bring back too many too soon and risk an outbreak that could lead to another shutdown. But for older workers at places like retail stores, laboratories, hair salons, and construction sites, the choice between safety and livelihood looms large.
“Front-line workers are going to do what they have to do to put food on the table,” said David Schildmeier, 63, communications director for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which has been urging employers to place older workers or those with health problems in support positions rather than on the front lines during the crisis. “All employers need to make safety accommodations. Many workers live paycheck to paycheck, and they have gone months now without a paycheck.”
Millions of older Americans have been laid off or furloughed, and many of them haven’t saved enough for retirement. They could face “a choice between going back to work at a low-wage job like grocery cashiers or baggers, or changing their living standards and selling their homes,” said John Murphy, 72, vice president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who’s led the union’s efforts to shore up multi-employer pension plans.
Older workers, often the victims of age discrimination, had found themselves in greater demand in the tighter job market of recent years. But unlike in previous downturns, where older employees were affected less than younger and middle-age workers, the current pandemic-fueled shutdown has sent the jobless rate of workers over 55 up to 9.4 percent for men and 13.1 percent for women, the highest level in decades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
When the recovery comes, older workers who have been idle will have to compete for openings with out-of-work younger workers. Many will have to retire sooner than they might have otherwise, with their investments depleted by the slumping stock market. Some will have to take Social Security before their full retirement age, resulting in lower payments.
Munnell, who has long advocated that Americans delay taking Social Security and work longer to build a more secure retirement, said, “I do worry that this will set that back for a while.”
Those clamoring to return to work, because they have to or want to, have to balance the need for a paycheck against health concerns. Baker urged workers over 65 to stay in their homes “except for absolutely necessary trips for things like health care and groceries.”
“One of the things that flashes all the way through this [reopening] report . . . is protect vulnerable populations,” said the 63-year-old governor, who urged older employees to continue doing their jobs remotely if they’re able to. "Vulnerable populations should do everything they can to recognize and understand the significant risks that COVID-19 presents for them.”
The voluntary nature of Baker’s advisory is important. Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy appealed to Massachusetts employers “to give priority for workforce accommodations to employees over the age of 65 and those with underlying health conditions.”
Employers who do so, framing their own back-to-work guidance to older workers as advisory, could shield themselves from age bias lawsuits.
“If employers reopen with only a portion of their employees, it would make most sense to allow employees to choose whether they want to come back to the office — and not penalize those who do not," said Boston labor lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan. “I think an employer who made a strict rule not allowing employees over 65 to come back to work would be inviting a discrimination complaint.”
While some older employees are eager to get back to the cubicle and reconnect with co-workers, others are fearful of boarding a crowded bus or subway car, or sharing an elevator with potentially contagious colleagues. Some may face a dilemma: They may fear getting too close to “young invincibles” in their offices who are cavalier about proper hygiene, face covering, and social distancing — even as they worry how an extended absence could affect their job or standing in their organization.
“I’m sure people are afraid that if your co-workers are going to be in the office and you’re not, you’re drawing a big red circle around yourself and saying ‘I’m different,’ ” Fishman said.
The real question is if older employees will be treated equally when things begin to normalize, said Doug Dickson, 73, board chair of the Boston Encore Network, which places older businesspeople and professionals in new roles in the nonprofit sector, public agencies, and companies.
“If they’re kept in a separate category, there’s a stigma to that," he said.