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Coronavirus and Congress: How to help older workers

Written by Diane Archer

The novel coronavirus has hit Americans hard. And, it has hit older workers especially hard. Not only are older workers at greater risk of serious harm from COVID-19, they are also at greater risk of losing work and not being able to find new work, writes Paul Brandus in an op-ed for Market Watch. Moreover, work that requires a commute can endanger the health and wellbeing of older workers.

The Labor Department reports that, for people over 55, the unemployment rate has fallen to 11.8 percent in May, down from 13.6 percent in April. Those numbers are actually lower than the unemployment rate for younger Americans.

But, there’s more to the story. Older adults are not likely to find new jobs easily. When they do, they will likely earn less than they had. That’s the way things have gone in the past.

Add to that the fact that older adults might justifiably fear going to work if they were to find a new job. Commuting could increase their risk of getting COVID-19. They are likely to wait until there’s a vaccine or a treatment before commuting.

Unfortunately, working from home is less of an option for older workers. They tend to have jobs that involve commutes. So, when they can’t work from home, workplace safety becomes a critical issue. If it is unsafe to be at work, older workers should stay home.

Older adults need better unemployment benefits at least until we are out of this pandemic. That said, unemployment benefits are always short-term. Those benefits might not last until older workers can take a new job. As a result, many older workers might find themselves falling into poverty.

Teresa Ghilarducci, a labor economist and director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at the New School in New York, has three solutions for helping older adults:

  1. Social Security benefits should increase right away by an extra $200 in benefits each month. This would bring the average monthly benefit to $1,703. It would help reduce stress levels for older workers.
  2. Congress should enact a universal pension plan for workers. It would supplement Social Security benefits for the nearly half of older Americans who rely exclusively on Social Security for their income in retirement.
  3. Congress should lower the Medicare eligibility age to 50, as some members of Congress have proposed. Older workers who lost their jobs would at least still have health insurance.

In fact, Congress should improve Medicare benefits, fill gaps in coverage and expand it to cover everyone, to best rein in costs and help older adults. That’s what Medicare for All would do. And, Medicare for All reduces overall national health care spending.

We could pay for Ghilarducci’s solutions in a number of ways. One way would be to increase Social Security contributions. People with higher incomes would continue contributing 6.2 percent of their income beyond the $137,700 ceiling. Medicare payroll contributions, which are not capped, also could be raised from 1.45 percent.

Here’s more from Just Care:

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