Age Discrimination and COVID-19 (An Age-Discriminating Virus)

Age discrimination is a form of prejudice that all employers must protect their employees against. But when older employee groups fall into at-risk categories during a crisis, organizations should be especially vigilant. In this article from our D&I partner, Teleskope, we examine how Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) have a role to play in safeguarding employees and organizations.

In this era of rapid technology innovation and the fetishization of startup-founding 20-something millionaires, age discrimination in employment is arguably more rampant than ever.

In reality, older adults (the “protected class” for age discrimination is anyone over the age of 40) are often as technologically adept as younger adults, and they are certainly no less capable of doing excellent work. However, a commitment to age diversity can potentially become complicated in a global pandemic, especially when faced with the unique profile of a virus such as COVID-19.

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are one of the main tools in the process of maintaining a company culture that is focused on valuing all employees, regardless of age. Furthermore, as ERGs are already entirely virtual, they are particularly valuable at a time when governments and businesses have widely implemented work from home orders.

Related reading: ‘Your Top and Bottom Lines Don’t Magically Disappear During a Crisis—Neither Should Your Diversity & Inclusion Programs’

COVID-19’s Unique, Discriminatory Threat

In the early days of the pandemic, back before social distancing measures had been implemented en masse in the United States, the main thing everyone knew about the virus was that it was likely to have its greatest impact on the older generation. To this day, the CDC’s advice highlights “older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying conditions” as higher-risk individuals.

Though the virus has tragically resulted in the deaths of many younger people who defy the profile, it has largely proven to be the case that older people are at disproportionately higher risk. The fact that the incidence rate of many underlying medical conditions increases with age magnifies that risk.

As a result, for many younger workers, the greatest concern when it came to COVID-19 was not that they would get sick themselves, but that they would be an asymptomatic carrier who infected untold numbers of other people without ever knowing it. For many older workers, the implications were more severe. This lead to a significant cultural disconnect between how younger and older groups of employees (and younger immuno-compromised employees) experienced the threat and the measures put in place to control it.

As a viral tweet from early March read, “A friendly reminder: people who will be high-risk patients if we get coronavirus can hear you when you reassure everyone we’re the only ones who might die.”

More from the blog: ’Tools and Strategies to Elevate Your Affirmative Action Program’

How ERGs Can Help in Your COVID-19 Response

ERGs can be a great way to provide education around the intersection of age and vulnerability to COVID-19.

If you have groups such as ‘Millennial Workers’ or ‘Recent College Grads’ that are tailored towards younger folks, you can share information around the impact of the disease on the older population, and hopefully prevent tone-deaf moments like the one described in the tweet above. Meanwhile, if you have an ERG set up for your older employees, you can use it to disseminate knowledge about resources and available support.

It’s also important to remember that the impact of COVID-19 on different age groups is not just restricted to those employees that are nearest retirement. Middle-aged employees are more likely to be responsible for caring for members of vulnerable groups, such as aging parents or immunocompromised family members. It’s worth considering ways in which ERGs could be sensitively used to connect and support employees who fall into these groups.

ERGs are an important piece of groundwork required for a fairer company culture, though they are becoming no less complex to administrate. Read more about our ERG platform here, or contact us today.

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