Older workers disproportionately affected by pandemic job cuts

  • The pandemic is forcing employers to make job cuts, and older workers are increasingly being seen as expendable.
  • If being the country can be run by a senior citizen, then employers shouldn’t make any assumptions about the competence of their aging employees.
  • Vincent White is a partner at White, Hilferty & Albanese, a national employment law firm.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The US just held a national election in which both presidential candidates were in their 70s. If people this age are deemed eligible for the most powerful position in America and arguably the world, then surely employers should think twice before making any categorical assumptions about the competence of older employees.


Instead, older workers are being pushed out of employment.

The coronavirus pandemic has inflicted disproportionate economic suffering on young people just entering the job market, working women, people of color, and low-wage workers. The virus’ effects have been unevenly distributed in ways that reflect broader power differentials in our social and economic life. One perhaps unexpected category of Americans, however, should be added to the list of those heavily impacted: older workers.

The pandemic problem for those on the cusp of retirement

Older workers often have little margin for error in hitting their savings goals before retirement. While young workers still have decades to recover from lost wages, those close to retirement have fewer remaining years in which to earn and save. 

Even for those fortunate enough not to worry about the financial impacts of retiring early, a growing body of research suggests that retiring later in life can have powerful social and psychological benefits. The right job, after all, is much more than a paycheck: it’s a source of pride, camaraderie, and meaning.

Earlier this month, a group of five appeals court judges in New York State filed a lawsuit alleging age discrimination against the state court system. They are part of a group of 46 judges over the age of 70 who are facing early retirement after their bid for recertification was denied. Facing severe COVID-19 induced budget deficits, the move appeared to be a bid to save costs, with the court system saying the cuts would save $55 million over several years. Are appellate judges likely to starve if they retire a few years early? No. But would their personal and professional lives, not to mention the New York State legal system, be enriched if they are allowed to continue working? Almost certainly.

 A working paper from the Brookings Institution suggests that on this side of the Atlantic the phenomena is just as serious. The paper cites evidence that early retirements are increasing, that older Americans often face greater challenges finding new employment if they lose their jobs, and that age-related discrimination may also be increasing because of the pandemic.

Older workers already face significantly elevated health risks from the coronavirus. Those in the age bracket of 65 to 74 are 90 times more likely to die than those in the 18-to-29 age group. Given this heightened danger, it’s reasonable for employers and employees alike to do careful safety audits of their workplaces and consider what teleworking options may be available for their positions. 

What’s unacceptable, however, is to use the pandemic as a pretext to force older workers out of jobs and into early retirement. This is precisely what the judges who are plaintiffs in the New York case contend is motivating their dismissal. 

The 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects employees and job applicants over the age of 40 from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, firing, wages, and promotion.

There are of course certain exceptions: pilots and firefighters, for instance, have early mandatory retirement ages because the physical skills essential to these jobs decline somewhat with age. In many other positions, however, older workers possess a wealth of skills accumulated over a lifetime of experience, and their last years on the job may be among their most effective and productive. 

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