The economic downturn in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the risks of working, exacerbating existing labor market inequalities. In an earlier article for AgeBlog, we categorized different occupations based on their job loss and health risks.
In short, jobs can be categorized as: Sideline Jobs: occupations facing high risk of unemployment, such as retail salespersons, food servers and machine assemblers. Frontline Jobs: essential jobs, as defined by federal guidelines, that are mostly low-paid and expose workers to higher health risk, such as janitors, truck drivers and personal care and home health aide workers. And lastly, Safe Jobs: occupations where workers face less risk of unemployment or falling ill, such as corporate executives, information technology managers, financial analysts, accountants and insurance underwriters.
Although all workers face heightened health and unemployment risks due to the pandemic, sizeable inequalities exist within the older workforce. New research shows that older women workers and older Black workers are underrepresented in safe jobs and overrepresented in jobs at risk for job loss and illness. Older women are overrepresented in sideline jobs more vulnerable to job loss, while older Black workers are more likely to work in frontline jobs with high health risks.
More than 24 percent of Black older workers are in frontline jobs, making them overrepresented in jobs with high exposure to the virus. This is especially true in the personal care and home health aide industry, where 21 percent of workers older than age 50 are Black, while only 10 percent of all older workers are Black.
Sick Leave Critical but Uncommon in Essential Jobs
Black older workers on the front lines are more likely than all Black workers to lack paid sick leave. On average, 40 percent of older Black frontline workers did not have paid sick leave before the outbreak. This overrepresentation and lack of paid sick days are serious causes for concern because Black Americans nationwide are significantly more likely to contract and die from the coronavirus. The overall COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans is 2.3 times as high as the rate for whites.
Older Women Are Overrepresented in Jobs with High Risk of Unemployment
During the pandemic, employment opportunities declined most in non-essential occupations, especially in jobs at the bottom of the income distribution that cannot be performed remotely. Because older women constitute the majority of workers in many of these low-paid jobs, especially in the service industry, they are overrepresented in sideline jobs. More than 56 percent (9.2 million) of older women (out of 21 million older women workers) are at high risk of unemployment and losing employer-based health insurance.
In many ways, older women and older Black workers were already excluded from the growth that characterized years of economic expansion and recovery preceding the COVID-19 crisis, amplifying systemic inequalities. In 2018, even after almost a decade of economic expansion following the Great Recession, older Black workers faced a higher unemployment rate compared to their white counterparts, while older women’s wage growth lagged behind that of prime-age men.
Unemployment Benefits Must Be Extended and Expanded
The virus likely will increase these labor market inequalities, disproportionately hurting low-income workers and communities of color. Hence, extending and expanding unemployment benefits is critical to ensure marginalized older workers’ well-being while unemployed and to ensure they have a choice to refuse unhealthy, low-paying jobs.
Additionally, for many workers unemployment means the loss of health insurance. Reducing the age at which one qualifies for Medicare to 50 and making it older workers’ primary insurance will protect these workers and facilitate their employment by lowering insurance costs for employers.
Forced retirement will rise as a result of the continuing health crisis and recession. Because Blacks and women have lower retirement balances than do white men, they are more likely to claim Social Security benefits at an earlier age, further diminishing their retirement income. Social Security benefits should be increased to offset the effects of COVID-19 recession.
Recessions reduce employment opportunities, decrease earnings and increase poverty at older ages. Older workers, especially older women and older non-white workers, are often hit hard by recessions, but the COVID-19 recession hit older people even harder than did past recessions. This is due both to the COVID-19 recession having a larger impact on the well-being of the economy, but also because the pandemic creates additional health and economic risks for older workers that magnify existing inequities.
Aida Farmand is a doctoral student in Economics at The New School for Social Research in New York City.