Older Workers Face A Tough Decision: Stay Inside... Or Earn A Paycheck?

Janet Jung has owned a beauty supply store in Venice for 30 years. Seniors are being asked to self-isolate to avoid infection with the coronavirus. (Emily Guerin/LAist)

To fight the spread of the coronavirus among those most likely to develop severe illness, Gov. Gavin Newsom has told Californians aged 65 and older to isolate themselves at home.

But what about the 20% of Californians in that age group who still have a job?

Many older workers are now facing a tough choice: Should they follow public health directives, or keep showing up to work in order to pay the bills and put food on the table?

"There's a lot of uncertainty and there are definitely mixed messages," said USC gerontology professor Kate Wilber. "How do we ensure that people that are pretty much on the margin economically are safe during this?"

The percentage of seniors in the workforce has been rising in California since 2008. About one in five residents 65 and older is still working, with many staying in the workplace because they lack retirement savings.

Working in old age can have some benefits, such as increased social interaction and mental engagement. But in this fast-moving public health crisis, it's also potentially exposing some of the most vulnerable people to infection.

"I have to work," said 67-year-old Koreatown resident Barbara Lochridge. "I don't have a choice."

She's been working as a crossing guard for the city of L.A. during the past few months. But when schools shut down last week, she said, "They called me and told me, 'Listen, you're gonna finish up the afternoon, but the schools are closing and we're going to have to lay you off. I'm so sorry.'"

Now, she's leaning into her other job — doing deliveries through Postmates.

Lochridge knows that due to her age, and the fact that she's had chemotherapy in the past, she'll be at higher risk of developing life-threatening complications if she contracts the coronavirus.

But she said she needs to keep working in order to pay her rent. She plans to wash her hands regularly and keep her distance from others.

"I don't interact with too many people," she said. "I pick up their package with gloves on. I drop it off at their front door. I don't talk to anybody."

'I'D RATHER WORK THAN JUST SIT AROUND'

Others say they would be willing to stay home. But they're taking cues from their employers.

"They haven't called me and said you need to stay at home," said Delilah Tibson, a 71-year-old housekeeper at the Westin Bonaventure. "But if they did, sure, I would stay at home."

Tibson said she'd heard the calls for seniors not to leave the house, but she planned to show up for work Tuesday because she was still on the schedule. She lives alone and doesn't want to disrupt her routine, or lose the income needed to support herself.

"I get joy, working," she said. "I'd rather work than just sit around."

Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute's Center for the Future of Aging, said older workers may fear losing their jobs, and not being able to find a new one once things get back to normal.

"They suffer the risks of ageism in employment, and oftentimes in re-employment," Irving said. "If they leave their jobs, the prospect of being re-employed is that much more challenging for this population. Particularly if the financial impacts of the coronavirus lead to recession, as I think is likely."

This week, economists with the UCLA Anderson Forecast said the U.S. economy has already entered a recession, ending an economic expansion that stretched on for more than a decade. They predict the recession will last through September.