Employers use Covid as cover for age discrimination

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The writer is an FT contributing columnist

The pandemic has changed how many of us think about age. 

In the “BC” era — before coronavirus — plenty of us were kidding ourselves that 60 is the new 40. I certainly was: I planned to work forever, and indulge my taste for camel trekking in the Gobi desert well into my dotage.

But within weeks of the emergence of Covid-19 in the west a year ago, it was pretty clear that, at least from a pandemic point of view, 60 was more like the new 80. Sixty-odd-year-olds like me, however fit we thought we were, found ourselves on the bulging right-hand side of Covid-19 death graphs by age, where the risk of dying was highest. 

I saw the American national conversation subtly shift toward portraying anyone over 60 as having one foot out of the door. Employment-discrimination lawyers, academics who study ageing and advocates for American seniors say this began to affect seniors in the workplace. Some employers began using Covid-19 as an excuse to get rid of older workers, bringing back younger workers from furlough faster than older ones.

According to a report from The New School’s Schwartz Centre for Economic Policy Analysis, unemployment rates for workers 55 and over exceeded those for mid-career workers during the pandemic, the first time such a gap persisted for six months or longer in nearly 50 years. Some 3m older American jobs were lost by this January due to the pandemic recession, the centre found.

“If you were over the age of 60, they pretty much put a toe tag on you,” says Kevin Baldwin of the Kansas City, Missouri employment discrimination law firm Baldwin & Vernon. “Companies started to categorise older employees as high-risk . . . and even companies that got help under the Paycheck Protection Program, which required them to keep employee numbers at the same level, realised that they did not have to keep the same employees,” so they could terminate older workers and replace them with younger ones. “They’re using Covid as cover.” 

His client JL Gibbs, 56, lost her job that way during Covid-19, after 28 years with the same company. Despite having stage four pancreatic cancer, Gibbs was laid off when the pandemic began, only to see her job advertised on indeed.com afterward. She asked whether she could have the job back but was told she would have to reapply and start at a newcomer salary if hired. The company settled with her for an undisclosed sum after Baldwin filed an age and disability discrimination lawsuit on her behalf.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which oversees age discrimination in the US, says it can’t quantify the number of employers using the pandemic as an excuse to lay off older workers. But Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation, the charitable arm of AARP, which advocates for Americans over 50, says there are parallels with the last recession after the 2008 global financial crisis. “We have an experience that is playing out again now. For older workers it takes twice as long to get back into the workforce, and there is a high percentage of adults 50 and older who become long-term unemployed.”

Kate Edwards, who campaigns against ageism in the gaming industry and technology sector, says the pandemic has “doubled down on the subtle perception that [older workers] are different. Now you are not just an intellectual liability but you are a physical liability to the company, you’re old, you’re vulnerable to Covid-19, you could be dead next week.”

But she points out that the pandemic has prompted some older Americans to step away from the labour market voluntarily. “We have all stared mortality in the face for the past year. There’s a massive carpe diem sensibility going on, maybe I should drop everything and do something different,” she says. “If people are walking away with the idea that this is a chance to rethink, then that’s a positive thing.”

So, maybe the pendulum will swing back to where it probably ought to have been all along: that 65 is still 65, and life at 65 can be fun too — not to mention guaranteeing a coronavirus shot in some states where younger workers still can’t get them. Sometimes age has its perks.

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