The fastest-growing segment of the U.S. workforce is also the most vulnerable to the fast-spreading coronavirus: older workers.
Nearly 1.4 million workers in Ohio are over the age of 55, including more than 350,000 who are 65 and older, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the number U.S. seniors who are working has grown nearly 23% in the last five years.
But older adults are at higher risk of severe illness and death if they contract the coronavirus, and state officials say Ohioans should not go to work if they believe their workplaces are not safe from the spread of infection.
Officials, however, say that Ohio employers are required to take a variety of safety measures that, if followed, should mean older and vulnerable populations who need to keep working are protected from COVID-19.
“We tried to create situations where if they do choose to go to work because it’s the appropriate thing to do that the workplace is as safe as possible,” said Dan Tierney, press secretary for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.
Ohioans have been ordered to stay at home unless it is absolutely necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19, and only “essential” businesses are allowed to be open.
“Unless you work for an essential business or are doing an essential activity, you should stay home,” said Dan Sufoletto, spokesman for Public Health — Dayton & Montgomery County. “Work from home is permitted and encouraged where possible.”
Most gathering places in Ohio have been ordered to shut down to help during the pandemic, including schools, churches, libraries, fitness facilities, theaters, stores, malls and other establishments.
Overall, about 39% of Ohioans 55 and older are employed, including more than one in six residents over the age of 65, according to estimates from the Bureaus of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey.
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Some of the jobs held by older Ohio workers cannot be done easily at home, like retail jobs at grocery stores, markets, hardware stores, pharmacies and convenience and discount stores and carryout restaurants.
These and other jobs require face-to-face interactions with customers and other employees, which potentially puts them at exposure risk.
But employers say they are taking the crisis extremely seriously and aren’t putting their workers in harm’s way.
Walmart says it is taking every precaution to keep stores safe, clean and sanitized and even modified its hours of operation to help provide extra time for restocking and cleaning. Ohio is home to 172 Walmart stores and Sam’s Club locations, which employ more than 50,000 people.
Dorothy Lane Market, which employs about 800 people across its four stores, says it has many older associates, who are a valued part of the workforce because of their “wisdom, hard work ethic and wonderful spirit.”
The company says it is using common sense and following federal and federal directives to keep its stores safe and clean.
“We love our older associates, as we do all the DLM Family, and do our best to accommodate their personal needs and requests,” the company said in a statement.
Kroger said its associates are on the frontlines of the pandemic to ensure people have access to food and other needed services and products.
Kroger is committed to protecting the health and safety of its associates, who are permitted to wear protective masks and gloves, a company spokesperson said.
Employers that follow CDC and state directives and recommendations for essential businesses generally should be able to provide a safe work environment for all employees, including older workers, said Jason Smith, associate state director of advocacy for AARP Ohio.
“Of course, everyone needs to take this very seriously and be washing their hands regularly and watching their social distancing and staying home as much as absolutely possible,” Smith said. “But I think if businesses are following those guidelines, folks should be as safe as we can expect under the circumstances.”
Older Ohioans increasingly are working out of financial necessity because they cannot survive on Social Security benefits alone or they want to continue to earn enough money to maintain the same quality of life, Smith said.
Older Americans commonly work in management occupations, sales and related jobs and office and administrative support occupations, according to the bureau. Some, like Ulrike Massey, own small businesses.
Massey is the 63-year-old owner of Spice Paradise at 8 Brown St. in the Oregon District, which is considered a grocery store and sells spices, dry soup mixes, eggs, butter and many other food and drink products.
Sales have “nosedived” during the coronavirus crisis, Massey said, but Spice Paradise remains open and people can pick up orders that are left on a chair blocking entry into the shop. She recently filled a large order for Dorothy Lane Market.
Massey said she is operating her 7-year-old business in a safe manner, because she is using gloves and disinfectant to wipe down the store every morning.
But Massey said she is very worried about the virus and she may scale back store operations to filling orders once or twice a week.
Massey said she cannot work from home because of health department regulations. Massey said the main reason she would close most days of the week is to be safe.
“I’m very concerned, I mean I haven’t had contact with my grandchildren or my children in a couple of weeks,” she said. “You look at everyone just walking around the street like, ‘Could I get this from you?’”
Some employers, like the city of Dayton, say they will allow vulnerable members of their workforces to work from home or stay home using accrued sick, vacation or personal leave.
The city has about 332 employees who are over the age of 60, or about 17% of its workforce.
Some people are concerned the pandemic will change the nature of the labor and job markets.
Phyllis Cummins, a senior research scholar with Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University, said she’s worried coronavirus could impact the types of jobs that are in demand when the crisis is over.
Older workers may need to re-skill to remain employed, because their technology knowledge may be lacking, putting them at a competitive disadvantage, she said.
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