I went out for the first time in several days to get groceries and dog food yesterday. It was overall pretty distressing to see what appeared to be a completely normal Chicago Saturday: traffic, pedestrians, St Patrick’s Day bar crawlers. One thing that really struck me, though, was our white-haired, senior citizen cashier at Petsmart. It’s one of the great tragedies of American society that we see so often we’ve become desensitized to it. Every day we encounter older citizens working menial, low-wage jobs instead of enjoying a relaxing retirement. With Coronavirus having high mortality rates for older people, this escalates from a mere failure of societal morals to a potential emergency: the people most vulnerable to the disease are also on the front lines of its spread. I set out to assess just how big of an issue this would be.
How many seniors work in the service industries?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics provides data on the age demographics of workers by industry via the Current Population Survey. Using the most recent report from 2019, and filtering to industries that represent the most customer facing service and retail jobs, we find that there are 4.2 million adults between the ages of 55 and 65 working these high-risk jobs and an additional 2 million over 65 years of age.
How many older service workers will get sick?
This question does not have a good answer. The U.S. has completely failed to implement widespread testing on a scale similar to other affected countries, so we do not know the trajectory of the spread right now. A report from Capitol Hill say that congress is being told privately to prepare for numbers on the scale of 25% to 50% of the country to contract Coronavirus. Since service and retail workers come into contact with large numbers of people and also work in close contact with younger workers who may be most likely to spread the virus, they are one of the highest risk groups. For this analysis, I’m going to assume that these high risk individuals, in nation where perhaps one out of every 2 people contract Coronavirus, will all get sick. If that seems unreasonable to you or new evidence emerges to suggest a lower estimate is reasonable, you can simply reduce the final estimate below by the appropriate percentage.
How many senior workers will be killed by Coronavirus?
These age categories don’t align perfectly with the ones used in the Bureau of Labor statistics, so, to be conservative, I’ve “rounded down” to the lower rate, using the 1.3% rate for everyone in the 55-64 category, and the 3.6% rate for everyone over 65, even though many are likely over 70 and at much greater risk.
Applying these mortality rates to the numbers of older workers reported above, the expected number of casualties is 126,000.
To try to put that in perspective, I pulled some of the worst disasters of the past and created a comparison chart. The potential scale of the Coronavirus as a disaster for older service and retail workers in America dwarfs all past events. In fact, the estimated death toll is more than 40 times that of the September 11th attacks.
What can be done?
As I have been writing this, I’ve been glad to see several cities and states impose limits on restaurant activity to increase social distancing, but this is not enough. The answer is simple: send them home. All customer-facing workers over 50 years of age should be excused from work until the pandemic passes. These are working class people who likely cannot afford an unexpected absence from work or loss of a job, so the only moral option is for us to provide for them their full usual pay and the guarantee that they will either have their jobs to return to or compensation until they find another.
If you’re looking for leadership that centers the interests of working class people and champions compassionate policies that consider realities like the ones discussed in this article. Check out Bernie Sanders’s campaign for President and his response to the Coronavirus.