Viral business: Older employees and the workplace

By Michelle Tuccitto Sullo

As the number of coronavirus cases in Connecticut continues to decline, employers around the state are welcoming more staff back to the workplace.

Companies need to consider how older employees are at higher risk from the virus, according to Gary Phelan, an adjunct professor at the Quinnipiac University School of Law and a partner with the Stratford-based law firm Mitchell & Sheahan.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s office reported Tuesday that there have been 48,096 coronavirus cases in the state of Connecticut, with 62 current hospitalizations and 4,406 deaths. Of those deaths, 4,143 victims were over the age of 60.

Older workers make up a substantial portion of the workforce. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows there were 10.3 million people over 65 still working nationwide in 2019.

“It is a substantial portion of workers and they are at higher risk of serious illness,” Phelan said.

Employers are in new territory with the COVID-19 pandemic. He recommended that employers focus on being adaptable when dealing with the working situation of older workers. However, he said the same advice should apply when dealing with all workers, regardless of age.

“What we did in the past is irrelevant,” Phelan said. “No employer has ever handled this before.”

What accommodations can employers make? Allow telecommuting for employees who prefer it. Install barriers such as plexiglass in offices. Require face masks for employees and customers. Alter shifts and restructure jobs to reduce the amount of contact between employees and with the public, according to Phelan.

Employers may want to see if they can transfer job duties among employees so individuals with medical conditions or older workers can work remotely, he added.

“It requires flexibility and creativity in the pandemic workplace,” Phelan said.

Employers shouldn’t assume that their older employees don’t want to come to work, however. He cautioned against requiring older workers to have alternative arrangements that aren’t applied to younger workers.

Phelan recommended having a conversation with all employees to get their input about how their jobs can be performed safer and better.

“Look at all of your workers and ask:  ‘What can we do to help?” Phelan said. “Create a dialogue.”

Just as there are a wide variety of jobs, there are many ways for employers to accommodate older employees. Many jobs can be done remotely, and employers can provide technology training where needed, Phelan added.

“At the heart of it is communicating with workers,” Phelan said.

He noted that the current environment is difficult, but employers can see it as an opportunity to build loyalty.

“If an employer bends over backwards to accommodate an employee, that builds loyalty, and that is priceless.”

Contact Michelle Tuccitto Sullo at [email protected]