Why Older Workers Need Unions—Now More Than Ever

At the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, 75-year-old Maria Rios makes $14.50 an hour as a food prep worker, supplementing her retired husband’s $400 monthly Social Security check. “I’m forced to still have to work to try to make ends meet,” she told The Guardian. “The healthcare the company provides is way too expensive,” Rios added, stressing the importance of pensions that allow older workers to “retire with dignity so people aren’t forced to be in a position where I am right now, 75 years old and still having to work.”

Sadly, Rios’ plight is not an isolated anecdote but part of a long-developing trend. For a host of economic and policy reasons, growing proportions of older Americans (ages 55 and older) are economically precarious and compelled to work far beyond that once-typical retirement age of 62 or 65. In 2020, more than one-fifth of the 35 million American workers older than age 55 earned so little they swelled the ranks of the working poor. (This means, in 2020, earning less than two-thirds of the U.S. median hourly wage of $15.29. In comparison, 18% of workers ages 35 to 54 earned those poverty wages.)

In November, 2021, the government published stunning data that didn’t grab many headlines: while America’s labor force is expected to rise by 5.5% (8.9 million new workers) overall by 2030, the ranks of workers ages 75 and older will shoot up by 96.5%. Just eight years from now, 11.7% of U.S. workers will be ages 75 or older—many of them toiling out of economic necessity due to meager Social Security benefits, paltry or nonexistent pensions and growing gaps between wages and costs of living. This trend has been developing for years: previous data have shown workers ages 65 and older are the fastest-growing age segment of the American workforce. And many of them, like Maria Rios, are stuck in or near poverty.

Working Women and the COVID Effect

Working poverty is especially marked for older women. Research by The New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) shows that older women workers are substantially more likely to be working poor than men; 26% of older women workers are working poor, while 15% of older working men are in that category, earning less than $15.29 per hour, two-thirds of the hourly median wage. Nearly 30% of older women work in low wage jobs. Racial stratification also raises these risks: more than 31% of nonwhites older than age 65 work in low-wage jobs.

As with so many aspects of our society, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed serious vulnerabilities and inequalities among older workers. For the first time in half a century, workers ages 55 and older experienced higher unemployment rates than younger mid-career workers, research by SCEPA’s Retirement Equity Lab found. One reason is the declining power of seniority; previously, in each recession since 1973, older workers had lower unemployment, partly due to their seniority. Unions are the single most effective way to protect older workers’ seniority and job security, which they’ve earned from a lifetime of work.

Unions protect workers’ rights to report and address health and safety hazards, which could save lives—especially in a pandemic.

While policy reforms would help—expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for millions of older workers who are left out, boosting Social Security benefits and pensions, and raising the federal minimum wage—one of the quickest, most effective ways to improve older workers’ pay, conditions and retirement options, is to expand unions.

As a 2020 Brookings Institution report by Beth Truesdale of Harvard University explained, “In the absence of meaningful union representation, very low wages are deeply baked into the structure of many industries. … the decline of unions and the political erosion of worker protections during the past 40 years have produced a situation in which there are few checks on employers’ wage-setting power.” Another Brookings report that year, by Seth Harris of Cornell University, examined how “low union density deprives some older workers of important workplace protections against age discrimination.”

Conversely, research shows that unionized employees earn far more than their non-unionized counterparts, on average. As the Economic Policy Institute found in 2020, union-represented workers made 11.2% more in wages than non-union employees in the same industries and occupations. The union pay difference is even more significant for unionized Black and Hispanic employees (13.7% and 20.1% higher wages, respectively).

The Union Health and Safety Difference

Across the board, unionization substantially improves workers’ access to, coverage in, and use of healthcare plans, government data show. Union employees’ participation in healthcare, dental and vision care all are significantly higher than among non-union workers—suggesting that employees find union-negotiated healthcare plans more affordable and useful.

Greater access to higher quality healthcare—a typical characteristic of unionized work—is especially important for older workers, for whom the prevention and treatment of chronic illnesses is critical. The pandemic era heightens this need, as older people experience intensified threats of serious viral illness, and workers of all ages are exposed to COVID-19 risks.

Since the pandemic’s earliest days, starting in March 2020, unions have pushed for an emergency temporary standard that would require employers to provide strong safety protections that could save many workers’ lives. Older workers in particular would benefit greatly from added safety measures designed to prevent the spread of infectious disease in the workplace. After President Trump blocked the effort, the Biden administration issued a standard covering healthcare workers. Advocates continue to promote a standard covering all workers.

The data tell us something important—if we’re willing to listen. The fastest-growing age segments of America’s workforce are ages 55 and older, especially ages 75 and older. Many are working because they have to.

A 2021 international health survey of more than 18,000 adults ages 65 and older, across 11 high-income nations, revealed deep economic and health vulnerabilities, especially for American elders. The report by the Commonwealth Fund found, for instance, that “Among older adults with multiple chronic conditions, those in the U.S. were among the most likely to have appointments cancelled or postponed because of the pandemic.”

The pandemic has revealed just how vulnerable workers are to airborne infectious diseases—and the need for unions to protect workers’ health and rights. As the Economic Policy Institute describes, “when nonunion workers have advocated for health and safety protections or wage increases, they have often been retaliated against or even fired for doing so. … The lack of these basic protections has led to thousands of essential workers becoming infected with the coronavirus, and many are dying as a result.” Being in a union protects the workers’ right to report and address health and safety hazards—a right that could save someone’s life.

Older Workers in Tough, Low-Wage Jobs

While some septuagenarians and octogenarians hold elevated positions such as President, Senator and CEO, millions of older workers toil in low-paid, physically demanding work. Consider two occupations that dominate projected employment growth over the next decade—home health aides and personal care aides.

While workers older than age 55 represent 24% of the overall labor force, according to original SCEPA research of 2020 Current Population Survey data, a whopping 33% of home health and personal care aides are older than age 55; and 89% of these older workers are women. These jobs feature meager wages, minimal benefits, long hours and intense physical and emotional demands. Those who care for older adults often work alone with difficult clients who physically and verbally abuse them. More than half, 56%, are working poor. Original research by SCEPA’s Retirement Equity Lab finds that just 9% of home health aides and personal care aides older than age 55 are in unions.

Older workers make up 35% of another tough, low-paid job performed largely by older men—janitorial services. Nearly half (48%) of these folks who clean up after the rest of us are part of the working poor. Similarly, among America’s 1 million low-paid security guards and surveillance operators—occupations that will add another 156,000 workers in the next decade—30% of these workers are older than age 55, despite the work’s physical demands and dangers.

The data tell us something important—if we’re willing to listen. The fastest-growing age segments of America’s workforce are ages 55 and older, especially ages 75 and older. Many are working because they have to—because their lifetime of work and pension-building (if any) is not enough. In the most rapidly growing jobs, these older workers are disproportionately women.

As America’s workforce ages, more older workers are in harm’s way and at poverty’s door. The expansion of older workers across the next decade brings risks and challenges. Millions more older workers, particularly in lower paid and more physically demanding occupations, raises the possibility of greater elder poverty and health concerns. While policy reforms are key, particularly strengthening Social Security and pensions, one of the best ways to address these looming issues is via expanded unionization.

Christopher D. Cook is resident writer at The New School for Social Research in New York. Teresa Ghilarducci, PhD, is the Irene and Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis at The New School for Social Research (SCEPA). Aida Farmand, PhD candidate, research assistant at the Retirement Equity Lab at SCEPA.