The Occupations Exposing the Elderly to COVID
October 8, 2020
As cases of COVID-19 rise and fall by the day, Americans have taken the fast road to return to work. While many Americans have received the call to leave their home office and resume working on-site, the risks of being infected have not gone away. In fact, the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 still increases with age, putting the older population at the greatest risk. But with 10.5 million workers over the age of 65 and older workers less likely to hold jobs that can be performed remotely, older adults are having a harder time with the nation phasing out working from home.
Which occupations have the most senior employees working on-site through COVID-19, and are they paying enough to mitigate the risks? Using monthly 2020 IPUMS CPS data, we determined the occupations with the largest population of workers aged 50–64 and 65+ who are currently employed on-site, and we broke down the essentials of essential workers’ exposure.
Industries of Increased Risk
For many, the term “essential worker” was largely unheard and unused before the country all but shut down at the start of the pandemic. But just as it sounds, the U.S. government defines essential workers as having critical infrastructure roles in sectors like transportation, energy, health care, and retail – in other words, employees of businesses we simply can’t live without. Of these essential workers, around 34% are ages 50 or older, and around 7% may not be covered by health insurance.
Lessors of real estate and offices of real estate agents and brokers employ the largest percentage of workers ages 50 and older. With 1.1 million workers over 50, older adults make up nearly half of this industry’s workforce. Closely following, 45.8% of the truck transportation industry workforce is aged 50 and older, while 45.4% of home health care services employees are as well. Despite having one of the largest older workforces, the home health care services industry pays the least. Compared to the computer systems designs and related services industry’s median annual salary of $113K, employees in the home health care services industry bring home an average salary of just $30.8K a year.
State of Essential Industries
Essential workers are dispersed around the country, but just like cases of COVID-19, some states have significantly more in the older age range. With nearly 42% of essential workers over the age of 50, Maine tops the charts in terms of states. Connecticut and Massachusetts closely follow, with 40.8% and 39.9%, respectively. However, in terms of metro areas, Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Miami Beach has the highest concentration of essential workers over 50, with 42.8%.
At the time of writing, the states experiencing the most new daily COVID-19 cases (North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Alabama) happen to have some of the lowest percentages of essential workers over 50. However, Maine, Connecticut, and Massachusetts have just 1 to 9 daily new cases per 100,000 people. While the low number of new cases may comfort older workers returning to work, it’s crucial to continue using precautions since they are still at an increased risk of severe illness.
Ready to return or not, many essential workers don’t have much of a choice. Since they are considered essential, refusing to return to work often means choosing to be unemployed and facing the economic challenges that inevitably follow. So, are essential workers being compensated for the risks they are seemingly forced to take? Not always.
Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and Massachusetts pay essential workers ages 50 and older the most, with average annual salaries of $88K, $83.3K, and $75.6K, respectively. In terms of metro areas, the San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont metro area pays older essential workers even more than D.C., with an average salary of $89.1K. The Washington and Boston-Cambridge-Newton metro areas also made the top three for salaries, paying older essential workers an average of $85.3K and $82.3K, respectively.
On the other hand, Oklahoma, Maine, and South Carolina were the top three states paying older essential workers the least. Maine topped the charts for the percentage of essential workers over 50, but the average salary in the state is a mere $47.3K. The Riverside-San Bernardino metro area also pays older essential workers the least, with an average salary just shy of $46K yearly.
Fighting on the Front Lines
There are over 55 million essential workers in America, and while all are at an increased risk compared to the able-to-shelter public, some essential workers are put more at risk than others. Essential industries with the highest likelihood of customer, client, or patient contact are the most likely to have workers come in contact with COVID-19 and are therefore considered front-line industries.
Bus service and urban transit is considered a front-line industry, and it happens to have the oldest workforce, on average. Compared to an average age of 43.6 for nursing care facilities, the average age of workers in the bus service and urban transit industry is 50.9. Again, despite the increased risk of these industries and the large portion of older workers, the bus service and urban transit industry pays an average salary of just $42.1K a year. While workers in this industry already make less than the national average, many essential workers – including those on the front lines – are bringing in less than the jobless thanks to the extra $600 added to unemployment benefits.
Fortunately, even the states with the highest percentage of front-line workers aged 65 and older don’t have all that many. Vermont tops the charts for seniors on the front line, with older workers encompassing just 12.5% of the workforce. New Mexico and Wisconsin also make the top three, but only have 9.3% and 9.2% of senior front-line workers, respectively.
Colleges, universities, and professional schools, including junior colleges, also have the highest percentage of senior front-line workers (7.8%) with a total of nearly 334K. Elementary and secondary schools have nearly double the number of front-line workers ages 65 and older, but the demographic makes up just 6.5% of the industry’s total workforce. Regardless of the total or percentage, workers aged 65 and older are at the highest risk of developing severe, and even fatal, symptoms from COVID-19, so employers and employees in these front-line industries need to exercise extreme caution.
Keep the Country Moving
While COVID-19 affects more demographics than initially thought, older adults remain the group with the highest risk of severe illness. With 34% of all essential workers aged 50 and older, some older adults are put at even more risk simply because of their profession. The real estate and truck transportation industries have the highest percentage of workers over the age of 50, while Maine and Connecticut have the largest concentration by state.
Despite most of the country staying safe in their homes, older essential workers continue to put themselves at risk to keep the country moving. At Bay Alarm Medical, our goal is to keep older adults safe by providing them with the technology to reach emergency call centers any time of the day with just a push of a button. Whether you or your loved one needs extra protection at home, in the car, or on the go, we have the products necessary to protect your family, health, and independence. To learn more about how it works or browse our products, visit us online today.
Methodology and Limitations
We analyzed IPUMS CPS data from 2020 using age variables in order to analyze the number of employees per industry who were ages 50 and older. IPUMS CPS combines monthly data from the U.S. labor force survey with the Current Population Survey (CPS) to combine employment and demographic data, as well as various supplements including the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) that we used in order to explore income data. We used the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency’s (CISA) guide on defining the essential workforce to determine essential industries and occupations within our data in order to understand which employees ages 50 and older are at risk for COVID-19. Within that group of essential roles, we also determined which roles had regular interfacing with clients, customers or other people, such as the Postal Service, public transportation workers, critical retail workers, health care workers, and others. We used ASEC’s 2019 data on income and wages by industry in order to look at the average pay of workers by industry in the 50 years old and older group. Data are weighted, and certain metropolitan areas with too few people samples (below 100 respondents) were removed from our city-level analysis.
Fair Use Statement
COVID-19 has impacted millions of people all around the world. But some people are at a higher risk than others. If someone you know could benefit from this study’s findings, feel free to share it with them for noncommercial purposes. All we ask is that you include a link back to this page, so readers can see the study in its entirety and read the methodology. This also ensures our authors receive proper credit.