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Protecting senior workers from COVID-19

With people over 60 at heightened risk of severe illness, how should employers respond?
By: | March 16, 2020 • 3 min read
Older man on the phone working at a laptop, so why are companies reluctant to hire older workers?

Across the U.S., businesses, school districts and governments are taking extreme measures to curb the spread of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. “Social distancing” has emerged as the most effective measure for getting the pandemic under control, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is recommending that people avoid crowds, cancel travel plans and try to maintain a distance of at least six feet from other people.

That solution is easier said than done, particularly for businesses that can’t temporarily shut down or mandate that employees work from home. Along with taking basic precautions that apply to all workers—ensuring access to hand sanitizer, holding meetings in large rooms and increasing the frequency at which the work site is cleaned —employers should be taking extra considerations for employees who are seniors, who have been deemed most at risk of suffering severe complications, or even dying, from COVID-19.

“There’s a special challenge for high-risk people where the nature of their work makes it very hard for them to work remotely,” says Jeff Levin-Scherz, co-leader of the North American Health Management practice in the Boston office of Willis Towers Watson. “Employers across the country are thinking long and hard about what to do in those situations.”

Seattle-based Starbucks Corp. is offering up to 14 days of “catastrophe pay” to employees who have been exposed to COVID-19, as well as those who are most vulnerable to succumbing to the virus, including those over the age of 60. But with health experts unsure when the outbreak will abate, a two-week reprieve from the workplace may be far from sufficient. According to Levin-Scherz, businesses in the hospitality and retail industries, where employees have frequent contact with the public, would be wise to reassign at-risk employees to back-of-the-house duties and place younger, healthier workers in customer-facing roles.

While older employees are more likely to experience serious illness from COVID-19, younger employees should also be encouraged to reduce the risk of contracting the virus, if for no other reason than to avoid passing it on to more vulnerable co-workers or family members. Levin-Scherz says employers should advise workers to stay home if they feel even slightly ill, as they could unknowingly spread the coronavirus to someone who may suffer grave consequences. All workers should be encouraged to take advantage of telemedicine services for unrelated health issues in order to avoid going to medical facilities where they could be exposed to COVID-19, he says.

“The coronavirus is a wake-up call for companies to review their strategies, policies and procedures for safeguarding employees…in this and future epidemics,” says Levin-Scherz.

Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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