Ageism in the COVID-19 Workplace: Walking the Fine Line between Protection and Discrimination of Older Employees

Ageism in the COVID-19 Workplace: Walking the Fine Line between Protection and Discrimination of Older Employees Ageism in the COVID-19 Workplace: Walking the Fine Line between Protection and Discrimination of Older Employees

August 26, 20203 min read

By Andra Stancu - Project Officer, International Federation on Ageing

As businesses and workplaces start re-opening and operating during the new normal that is COVID-19, there is concern that efforts to protect older employees might actually be violating the rights of older workers.

An article published in Forbes magazine recently suggested that certain operational changes may not only be singling out older people unfairly - but may in fact constitute illegal discrimination.

In the United States, should an employee experience age discrimination, provisions in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act 1967 (ADEA) may provide some protections. The following workplace policies may be crossing the line from protection to discrimination:

  • Moving an older worker from the front office to the back office, away from contact with the general public and substantially altering the worker’s job duties
  • Furloughing only older workers and allowing younger workers to continue working
  • Only mandating that older employees wear personal protective equipment, such as face shields or face masks
  • Firing older workers due to the belief that they will be more expensive to keep on as employees due to potentially higher insurance or paid time off costs

If an employee feels unsafe in their workplace, Tom Spiggle, Senior Contributor at Forbes suggests that accommodations could be based on underlying medical risk factors rather than age though the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 (ADA).


“One of the rights not present in the ADEA is the right to reasonable accommodations because of age. But given how many older workers tend to have medical conditions, it’s possible that an older worker can ask for an accommodation if they have an ADA recognized disability.”

Although older employees are considered at-risk for the coronavirus, there are reasonable accommodations that may ensure a safe return to the workplace for all. It is incumbent upon employers to review recommendations made by public health authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in order to adapt workplaces to protect employees from COVID-19 while steering away from discriminatory practices.

If you are a journalist covering this topic – let the experts help with your stories.

  • Dr. Anne Martin-Matthews is a Professor of Ageing and Lifecourse at the University of British Columbia. She is an expert in the areas of public policy and the the sociology of aging.
  • Dr. Debra Whitman is the Chief Public Policy Officer with AARP and is an authority on aging issues with extensive experience in policymaking, research and the political process.

Both experts are available to speak with media about the rights of older adults in the workplace and this emerging issue – simply click on either expert’s icon to arrange an interview today.

Given the heightened awareness of the devastating effects of COVID-19 on older people, this is an opportune moment to advocate for equitable treatment of older employees in the workforce. The rich experience and resilience of older workers through this period of unparalleled workplace pressures should not be undermined by workplace discrimination such as ageism. Combating age discrimination requires a whole-of-society approach comprising citizens, governments, civil society, academia, and industry in order to transform attitudes and actions across generations.

Connect with:
  • Dr. Anne Martin-Matthews
    Dr. Anne Martin-Matthews Professor, Ageing and Lifecourse

    Anne Martin-Matthews' current research focuses on two areas of inquiry in the sociology of aging.

  • Dr. Debra Whitman
    Dr. Debra Whitman Chief Public Policy Officer

    Debra Whitman, PhD, is an economist and expert on aging issues with extensive experience in national policymaking and global research.

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