Keeping Older Workers Safe and Productive

By Kylie Ora Lobell January 27, 2021
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Keeping Older Workers Safe and Productive

​Last summer, 69-year-old Gary Cort quit his job teaching physics for Great Hearts Academies charter schools in Arizona. He said he was vulnerable to COVID-19 due to his age and other health complications and asked administrators if he could teach remotely instead. According to Cort, they told him it was not possible under their model. 

Cort said he felt he had to resign in order to preserve his health. According to a Great Hearts Academies spokesperson, the schools were in the early stages of developing an enhanced distance-learning program when Cort quit.

Cort was not alone in his decision; many older workers have chosen to retire early instead of risking their health to go to work. However, as the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out and more businesses recall employees to physical workspaces, older employees who are still working remotely may have to decide if they're going to return. 

Many companies are striving to assure older workers that returning is safe. Others are making exceptions for those employees, allowing them to continue to perform their jobs remotely. Whether they are onsite or remote, the key to keeping valued older workers on board is to listen to their concerns and take steps to protect their safety, workplace experts say.

Send a Clear Message

Some older workers may be first in line to return to a physical workspace once their employers invite them back. But even so, it's critical for organizations to put safety measures in place, and then communicate to all employees what those measures are, said Mark Allen, Ph.D., academic director of the master of science in human resources program and a professor at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School in Malibu, Calif.

"In order to help employees feel safe, organizations need to send continuous and consistent messaging that they are taking the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines seriously and are doing everything possible to keep employees safe," Allen said. That includes requiring masks, social distancing, frequent sanitizing, temperature checks and, when appropriate, acrylic glass dividers between desks.

Aside from communicating about new safety protocols, employers should also create a formal effort to "reboard" employees in the new post-pandemic workplace. "Just as we know how important it is to onboard new employees to a new workplace, it will be equally important to reboard employees to a workplace that will be very different from the one they left last March," Allen said. "The differences will be across a spectrum [of] safety rules, physical environment, workplace flexibility and even social norms."

Consider Options for All Employees

As many workplaces shift back to in-person work, issues that impact older workers more than other workers may arise. But creating a policy that applies only to older workers, such as allowing only people over a certain age to work from home, could raise legal questions.

"Although employers aren't legally required to keep employees who refuse to return to the workplace based on general discomfort about contracting COVID-19, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission did say that if it is a viable work alternative, employees can request telework as a reasonable accommodation during coronavirus to reduce their chances of infection," said Lauren Blair, an employment law attorney in Chicago. That said, employers should give all employees, not just older workers, the choice to stay remote as long as they can perform their job duties from home, Blair advised.

"Workers under the age of 40 who belong to a protected class based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity [and] disability can claim that they were discriminated against if older workers were given the option to telework but they were not," she said. "The bottom line is that telework policies should be offered and implemented based on job descriptions—that the jobs [can] be performed remotely—and not simply based on age."

Comply with the ADEA

When it does make sense to create a new policy for older workers, it's critical to comply with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), Blair said. All private employers that have 20 or more employees, along with employment agencies, labor organizations, and state and local government employers, must be in compliance.

"The rule prohibits practices that, although facially neutral with regard to age, have the effect of harming older workers more than younger workers (i.e., disparate impact), unless the employer can show that the practice is based on a reasonable factor other than age," Blair said. "Employers have to comply with the ADEA and should be mindful of COVID-19-related practices or policies that discriminate against older workers."

Create Opportunities to Connect

Even if older workers are allowed to continue working from home, there could be unintended consequences on their career development and progression. For instance, they may not be able to have as much face time with bosses or colleagues and peers who may have input on their performance reviews.

That means the need for frequent check-ins is even more important, said Jeff Moore, vice president of delivery and HR at DevelopIntelligence in Louisville, Colo. Even though they're not perfect, he said, Zoom and other platforms help bosses have regular one-on-one meetings with each employee to talk about work and personal well-being. If older employees live close to the office and don't feel comfortable working a full day onsite, they can come in for one-on-one meetings outdoors, he added.

At Moore's office, employees have socially distanced lunches with colleagues a few times a month, which could be a good option for older employees. "The number of [lunches] depends on current public health guidelines," he said. "But it's creating an opportunity for those who need some connection time."

Encourage Open Dialogue

As year two of the pandemic arrives, many older employees are dealing with challenges beyond the workplace, and Moore believes that those workers, as well as workers of all ages, should speak up and self-advocate if they need something.

"We want to support all employees, recognizing that everyone has different circumstances. The better we are able to understand those circumstances, the more effectively we can respond with creative, mutually beneficial work arrangements," he said. "We want all employees to be able to make their best contribution."

Allen agreed that employees should vocalize what they seek, but said employers also have a responsibility to help workers feel empowered to do their optimal work.

"We need to prioritize showing care for all of our employees—care about their physical and emotional well-being," Allen said. "We need to be patient and not rush people back to work until a significant proportion of the population has been vaccinated. And, as always, we need to ensure that we have a workplace in which people are safe and feel safe."

Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

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