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Coronavirus' double bind on older workers could squeeze Trump

Friday's job report was especially devastating for the growing number of older people remaining in the workforce. The unemployment rate for workers 65 and older, which had been running almost exactly even this year with the level for those aged 25-54, spiked to 15.6% in April, significantly greater than the already breathtaking 12.8% rate for those in their prime working years, according to federal statistics.

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Analysis by Ronald Brownstein
CNN — Friday's job report was especially devastating for the growing number of older people remaining in the workforce. The unemployment rate for workers 65 and older, which had been running almost exactly even this year with the level for those aged 25-54, spiked to 15.6% in April, significantly greater than the already breathtaking 12.8% rate for those in their prime working years, according to federal statistics.

And while those numbers are crushing, they constitute only half of the brutal equation now facing older workers: While millions have been thrown out of their jobs, millions more may fear returning to their workplaces as the economy reopens because the coronavirus has proved much more fatal for older than younger adults.

These twin gales are presenting older workers with an especially pointed version of the dilemma confronting Americans of all ages: How do they weigh the health risks of returning to work against the financial dangers of not doing so?

That pressure on older Americans in turn could compound one of the most unexpected political challenges facing President Donald Trump: clear signs in a broad array of polls that the GOP's consistent advantage since 2000 among older white voters may be slipping.

In a new national CNN poll released Tuesday morning, only 42% of seniors from all races approved of either the President's handling of the coronavirus outbreak or his overall job performance. On both counts, that was his lowest rating among any group except adults 34 and younger -- traditionally the cohort most resistant to Trump.

That erosion could intensify if more older Americans conclude that Trump and other Republicans, in effect, see more deaths among seniors as acceptable collateral damage for restarting the economy -- as some GOP leaders, such as Texas Lt. Gov Dan Patrick, have explicitly argued. In several states with Republican governors, local unemployment officials are raising the prospect of cutting off benefits for workers who refuse to return to their jobs because they fear contracting the disease -- a policy that could especially threaten older workers.

"Every single poll question, whether it's ours or somebody else's, shows there is more fear about social distancing ending too soon than going on too long," says Democratic pollster Nick Gourevitch of the Global Strategy Group, which helps to conduct a daily tracking poll about attitudes on the outbreak. "And for old people, their health is at risk. It goes without saying that for a vulnerable population that [concern about reopening too soon] would be heightened. I think Trump has a real risk right now as being seen of putting people's lives and health at risk, and I think it's as simple as that."

Seniors a crucial part of Trump's base

Older workers aren't the only group facing the double bind of greater risk from the disease and higher unemployment. African Americans and Latinos also represent a disproportionate share of the dying, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and face greater unemployment than whites, according to last week's Bureau of Labor Statistics report. (Young people suffered the biggest increase in unemployment, the BLS found, although they remain much less likely to die from the disease.)

The pressures on older Americans, though, are especially fraught for Trump because they constituted such an important part of his base in 2016: The Edison Research exit polls used by CNN and other media organizations and the Pew Research Center voter studies both found that Trump won seniors by 7 to 9 percentage points. In the exit poll, he carried almost three-fifths of white seniors. (He lost badly, by contrast, with African Americans, Latinos and young adults.) With the GOP already struggling among white-collar suburban voters who previously leaned toward the party, Trump can't afford much erosion with white seniors.

Those older whites have often proved a receptive audience for Trump's polarizing cultural messages on immigration and race. But the outbreak has, for now, presented older Americans of all races with far more immediate concerns.

While the social-distancing measures of March and April represented a "pause button" on the outbreak, says epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Health Security, "if we want to 'press play' at this point we have to recognize the virus is still out there ... and for people who are in high-risk groups, they are equally at risk as they were before."

The combined effect of employers culling older workers first as they reduce their payrolls and older workers hesitating about returning to their jobs seems certain to stall or even reverse one of the most powerful labor-market trends over the past several decades: the increasing share of older Americans who are staying on the job, either because they want to or need to.

Federal statistics show that the labor force participation rate over recent decades has been rising significantly for older adults, even as it falls for younger cohorts. The share of Americans aged 55-64 in the labor force, for instance, jumped from 58% to 64% from 1996 through 2016, while falling from 67% to 63% for all adults over that period, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found in a study last year.

This trend has blown through the traditional retirement age: The share of adults 65-74 in the labor force increased by almost exactly half in those years, from 18% to 27%; even Americans over 75 increased their labor market presence from 5% to 8%.

Employment trend under threat

The graying tint of the workforce has reflected both need and desire. Surveys have found that many baby boomers, particularly in white-collar professions, enjoy working at advanced ages and find it gives meaning and structure to their lives, notes Jacquelyn B. James, co-director of the Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. But necessity, she says, is also driving the trend. While "there are also all kind of other positives that go with work," James says, "we also see when people can afford to retire, they usually do."

Now this long-term shift toward longer working lives is threatened from both sides of the employer-employer relationship.

As April's surge in senior unemployment suggests, employers may be looking first at older workers as the pandemic requires them to reduce their payrolls.

"I think that is a high probability because if past is prologue, employers, when they have had to structure layoffs, have been more likely to look to the older worker," James says. During downturns, she says, employers often believe older workers "are almost ready to go anyway and younger people need the jobs."

The prospect that employers will use the downturn to push out older workers is the principal concern of the AARP, the huge lobbying group for Americans over 50.

"I don't want this to be an opportunity to extend age discrimination," says Susan Weinstock, the group's vice president for financial resilience programming. "This should be based on health rather than an arbitrary cutoff based on age."

But the reverse dynamic is an issue too. Older workers may be especially reluctant to return to workplaces, for good reason. Older people are not more likely to contract the disease, notes Nuzzo, the epidemiologist, but they are more likely to suffer severe illness or death if they do.

CDC figures show that through early May, 93% of the Americans who have died from coronavirus were 55 or older. About three-fifths of total deaths through that point were among people 75 and older, relatively few of whom remain in the workforce. But people aged 55-74, who are still working at relatively high rates, accounted for more than four times as many deaths as Americans in the prime working years of 25-54, the CDC found.

Risks if they return, risks if they don't

Whether or not older Americans return to work in numbers comparable to younger ones, the movement to reopen the economy could expose seniors to the greatest risks, Nuzzo notes. With young people likely to move back into society more quickly than older ones, she says, younger generations may compose a slightly higher share of the people who are infected in the next few weeks.

But because the disease has been so much deadlier for older people especially with underlying health problems, she believes it is unlikely the age distribution of the death count will change much. That means that if loosening social distancing swells the overall infection rate, as most experts expect, older people will stay pay the highest price in morality, even if they are circulating in society less than their younger counterparts.

"The studies have consistently shown that advanced age and underlying health conditions are highly associated with severe illness and death, so I don't expect the ratios to change precipitously or invert," Nuzzo says. "If there are more cases in the community every time that one old person has to go and get to the grocery store, there still is an opportunity" to become infected.

It's also unclear whether older workers reluctant to return to work will be granted special dispensations. Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Georgia and Iowa are among the states with Republican governors who have firmly announced in recent weeks that under their interpretations of state and federal law, workers who refuse offers to return to their jobs because they fear contracting coronavirus in the workplace will be denied unemployment benefits. In Iowa, the state workforce development commission placed a video clip of Gov. Kim Reynolds delivering that warning directly on the homepage of its website, where people might begin the search for unemployment benefits.

No consistent policy has emerged in these states on whether to exempt workers who may be at greater risk from the disease, either because of underlying health conditions or age.

The Georgia Department of Labor is deciding such claims on a case-by-case basis, says Kersha Cartwright, a spokeswoman there. "Feeling unsafe is not a valid reason" to reject employment, she says, but "some of these special circumstances might make it a valid reason."

In Tennessee, the state "has not explored specific exemptions for older workers who are required to return to work after a temporary layoff due to COVID-19," Chris Cannon, assistant administrator at the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, says in an email.

Both Iowa and Texas received enough "pushback" over their initial policies to issue subsequent guidance indicating that older workers would likely be exempted, says Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project. But she argues that older workers are more likely to hear the stark initial message from governors and other state officials than to hunt down the technical legal guidance now buried on state employment websites.

"Workers are just going to see this and consider it an order and not challenge it," Evermore said. "Getting states to walk back this messaging is a little bit like closing the barn door after the horse is out. Once people have heard from the governor you have to go back to work, and then they issue on their website somewhere FAQs [frequently asked questions] that slightly soften that, does that reverse the initial damage? I don't think so."

A challenge for Trump

The health and financial strains converging on older Americans have become a source of political stress for Republicans. In every presidential race after 2000, the GOP has enjoyed double-digit advantages among white seniors, who have proved a receptive audience to conservative GOP cultural messages.

But seniors have remained notably cool as Trump and other Republican leaders have tried to recast the debate about reopening the economy as a kind of culture war between average Americans ostensibly raring to resume work and medical elites and liberals trying to confine them in their homes. In polling released last week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, two-thirds of seniors overall, and even two-thirds of white seniors, said they were more concerned that states would lift restrictions on social and economic activity too quickly than too slowly. Late April polling by the massive Nationscape survey project supervised by UCLA and the Voter Study Group put the share of both all and white seniors more concerned about lifting restrictions too soon even higher, at nearly three-fourths, according to detailed results provided by the project.

Those attitudes, predicts Gourevitch, the Democratic pollster, will make it difficult for Trump to unify his base around rapidly reopening the economy as successfully as he consolidated it on other culturally polarizing disputes, such as his push for a border wall or criticism of African American NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem.

"This is not quite the same culture war," Gourevitch said. "This isn't like football protests. This is like life and death, health and jobs stuff, and that doesn't exactly align with outrage and culture wars."

Part of Trump's political success has been his ability to convince his base voters that he is defending them against the forces that he portrays as threatening their values and interests -- from one direction, minorities or immigrants, and from the other contemptuous elites. The political risk he faces now is that one key component of that base -- older whites -- may conclude that far from protecting them, Trump is instead sacrificing them to his larger imperative of restarting the economy as quickly as possible.

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