Two senators are asking the Department of Labor to “prioritize supporting older workers,” and the head of the National Council on Aging has put forth a potentially even bigger idea: that the Labor Department establish an “Older Workers Bureau.” Could their efforts help solve the senior living industry’s biggest challenge, finding and keeping competent employees?
Sens. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Tim Scott (R-SC), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, wrote Labor Secretary Martin Walsh on Thursday.
“The hiring and retaining of older workers benefits employees, employers, consumers, job creators, and society as a whole,” they said in their letter, defining “older workers” as those aged 55 or more years. “Older workers are also a flexible workforce and can take advantage of multiple types of employment opportunities, as many opt to stay engaged in the workforce through part-time work or self-employment opportunities in addition to full-time employment,” Casey and Scott added.
The senators asked Walsh to provide information about the steps his department is taking to track trends in the type of jobs older workers are performing, how the department helps older workers navigate available opportunities, how the department and Biden administration are using apprenticeship initiatives and other existing programs to help older workers gain new skills and reenter the workforce, and how the department has partnered or plans to partner with the private sector to advance employment opportunities for older Americans.
Casey and Scott’s letter coincided with a Senate Aging Committee hearing Thursday on “A Changing Workforce: Supporting Older Workers Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond.” At that hearing, witness Ramsey Alwin, president and CEO of the NCOA, called for a bureau at the DOL that would “look holistically at older worker issues across the federal government” and “identify and coordinate existing federal resources, identify and work to eliminate barriers to working longer, and disseminate promising employment and training practices.” Additionally, Alwin said, an Older Workers Bureau could work with the existing Domestic Policy Council and National Economic Council to “mobilize the resources of the federal government and promote public-private innovation.”
Beyond the creation of a bureau focused on workers aged 55 and older, the NCOA is calling for the federal government to strengthen federal age discrimination protections and enforcement, expand job placement and training services, and ensure equitable access to high-quality job opportunities for older adults.
Casey, Scott, Alwin and others at the hearing detailed proposed legislation meant to accomplish at least some of those goals.
For instance, Casey on March 22 reintroduced the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act, S.880, with Sens, Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Susan Collins (R-ME).
“This bipartisan bill would strengthen age discrimination protections and make it easier for older workers to seek justice in court,” Casey said Thursday. The legislation has been referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, on which two of the bill’s sponsors, Casey and Collins, are members.
Alwin said that the bill is “a great start,” noting that it “would strengthen protections in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) by permitting plaintiffs to sue for age discrimination even if age was not the sole cause of the challenged employment decision.” The act, she added, “would reverse a 2009 Supreme Court decision (Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., 557 U.S. 167) that required age to be the sole reason an employer fired or changed a worker’s job in order for the worker to win an age discrimination claim.”
NCOA also supports the Protect Older Job Applicants Act, H.R. 8381, introduced by Rep. Syvia Garcia (D-TX), which Alwin said “would go a long way toward reinforcing and expanding the rights of older workers.” The legislation would prohibit the use of birth dates on job applications, and Alwin said that NCOA “strongly recommends” additionally prohibiting employers from requesting graduation dates and prior salary histories from job applicants.
The day before the Senate hearing, on Wednesday, Casey, Scott and Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) introduced the rolls-off-the-tongue Supporting and Empowering the Nation to Improve Outcomes that reaffirm Careers, Activities, and Recreation for the Elderly (SENIOR CARE) Act. The bipartisan bill, Casey said, “would support older workers with disabilities who choose to continue to work by removing an arbitrary age cap in Medicaid’s eligibility rules.”
Whether any of this legislation becomes law — and if so, whether it would help senior living operators or add to an administrative burden — remains to be seen. But the potential for good is there.
And maximizing the labor force participation of older adults has benefits for the country as a whole, Alwin said. The United States could increase gross domestic product by almost 15%, she said, citing information from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Additionally, Alwin testified, older workers who want to work and are able to delay retirement contribute payroll taxes that can help keep Social Security and Medicare solvent longer.