The blog of the Urban Institute
October 20, 2020

To Stay in the Labor Force, Older Workers Need to Know Their Rights When They Become Ill or Injured

October 20, 2020

As Americans’ average life expectancy has been generally trending longer for decades, some experts have urged people to delay retirement and work longer, and many policies have been developed to incentivize this behavior. But these efforts miss an important segment of older workers: those who retire prematurely because of health conditions.

Each year, millions of older workers leave the labor force and retire prematurely, often because of health shocks. The COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn have made these challenges even greater (PDF) for older workers, who are at increased risk of negative health outcomes and who are experiencing high rates of unemployment during the pandemic. Many of these workers also do not qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and instead must accept reduced retirement benefits.

But many older workers who experience a new health condition do not need to permanently leave the labor force. In our new brief, we explore policies to help older workers better understand their right to request reasonable accommodations from their employers that would allow them to continue working. The provision of paid medical leave benefits in many states could provide an important avenue for helping newly ill and injured workers know their rights and stay in the workforce.

Older workers face greater risk of premature retirement after a health shock

Older workers who experience job loss are much more likely to retire prematurely, and that job loss is often the result of a health shock.

One survey (PDF) found 4 in 10 workers reported retiring earlier than planned. Of the retirees reporting premature retirement, 35 percent retired because of a health problem or a disability. Survey data from 1992 to 2016 show that many workers ages 50 to 67 report being forced or felt somewhat forced to retire, often citing health as a factor.

Overall, 45 percent of retired workers report having been forced or somewhat forced to retire. This rate is 10 to 15 percentage points higher for people of color than for white people. Although there isn’t clear evidence on the reasons for this disparity among workers, research does show that systemic racism is a driving factor of racial disparities in health. Of premature retirees, 62 percent cite poor health as a factor, a rate that is similar across racial groups and higher for people with less education.

Many older workers who retire prematurely suffer negative consequences. Older adults with poor health who are not receiving SSDI are more likely to live in or near poverty than older workers on SSDI. Urban Institute experts estimate that 35 percent of this group have incomes below the federal poverty level, and another 9 percent have incomes less than 150 percent of the poverty level.

Workplace accommodations can help keep at-risk workers employed

Many workers’ most immediate need is access to job-protected medical leave, which would allow them to stay employed while dealing with health issues. Research indicates that when workers can take adequate leave to manage a health condition, they experience better health outcomes. After that critical protection, other accommodations may evolve to include flexible schedules, special equipment, and revised work tasks to help them return to work successfully.

These and other important protections and rights for older workers are provided under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and ADA Amendments Act of 2008. Though the ADEA is specifically targeted to older workers, the ADA is often a stronger tool for accessing rights to job-protected workplace accommodations. The Family and Medical Leave Act also plays an important role in ensuring access to job-protected medical leave for many workers.

Although older workers have rights and protections under the law, the data on how often they receive accommodations are conflicting and largely suggest few do. Many factors contribute to whether someone receives an accommodation, but knowledge of their rights and willingness to request an accommodation are both key. And the likelihood of receiving an accommodation is highest while the worker is with their current employer, so timely self-advocacy is critical.

Leveraging paid medical leave programs to assist workers

State-paid family and medical leave programs provide an opportunity to educate workers who may need accommodations to return to work successfully.

These state programs could conduct cost-effective outreach through email, social media, and online advertising. Their efforts could first focus on raising workers’ awareness of their potential rights to ADA-protected paid and unpaid leave. States could then do targeted outreach to workers who request long leaves (six weeks or more) or who request significant extensions to their original leaves to provide more detailed information on their ADA rights. People taking extended leave may be transitioning from a temporary disability to a long-term or permanent condition that may require changes to workplace accommodations as they manage their conditions.

Going forward, proposals for federal paid family and medical leave could also include education and outreach plans to assist at-risk workers and ensure workers know their rights. Together, the provision of paid leave benefits and access to workplace accommodations would help older workers and others who develop temporary disabilities stay in the labor force.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.