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For older workers, pandemic unemployment could be career-ending

The worsening pandemic continues to mean millions of Americans out of work. For older employees in particular, this kind of long-term unemployment can represent the end of a career -- especially when they may be facing age discrimination and bias. Economics correspondent Paul Solman looks at the problem as part of his series Unfinished Business.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, jobless claims were up today. In fact, roughly one-third of the unemployed have now been out of work for more than six months, about 3.6 million people without regular work since the start of the pandemic.

    For older workers in particular, this kind of long-term unemployment can be the end of road.

    Economics correspondent Paul Solman looks at their problem as part of his series Unfinished Business.

  • Kathy Docter:

    I get a call from my manager. And he says: "Well, we have had to make some cutbacks due to COVID. You were the one that we chose to let go."

  • Paul Solman:

    And, poof, 61-year-old Kathy Docter, an I.T. liaison at Cincinnati-based Cintas, was just another older American out of a job.

  • Kathy Docter:

    I'd been with the company 30 years. I never dreamed they would terminate me in that way. I have never been fired from anything.

  • Paul Solman:

    Weeks before, at a meeting about how the firm was handling COVID, a young colleague stormed out.

  • Kathy Docter:

    And he just blew up at my manager. A few hours later, I was at my desk. And my supervisor came over and told me that they needed to talk to me.

    And he said, we know that you instigated that entire outburst from him. We're telling you right now we're not going to tolerate that.

  • Paul Solman:

    The charge was absurd, says the grandmother of six. But she was terminated. The young co-worker, still there.

    So, you think that they were thinking, we're going to get rid of her; We will use this incident as the excuse?

  • Kathy Docter:

    Yes.

  • Paul Solman:

    What do you think prompted the dismissal?

  • Kathy Docter:

    I think it was my age and my physical condition, because I have cirrhosis.

  • Paul Solman:

    That puts Docter at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

  • Katherine Daughtrey Neff:

    Kathy's situation is not unusual.

  • Paul Solman:

    Not at Cintas, says Cincinnati-area attorney Katherine Daughtrey Neff, nor at lots of firms these days.

  • Katherine Daughtrey Neff:

    They are using COVID and the economy as an excuse to create layoffs. You ask a company, that could be because the long-term or older workers tend to earn more. They may also be trying to avoid additional expenses with insurance premiums going up, if they have an older work force, who could be subject to more difficult problems with COVID.

  • Paul Solman:

    The recession rule of thumb used to be last hired, first fired. So, the new reality is a real departure from the past for older workers, says economist Teresa Ghilarducci.

  • Teresa Ghilarducci:

    This is a trend that we all are surprised about, because it used to be that at least experience and attachment to the employer paid off in a recession, that you saw the younger workers being pushed out a lot faster.

  • Paul Solman:

    But unemployment rates for workers 55 and older have been higher than mid-career employees since the start of this pandemic, says Ghilarducci.

  • Teresa Ghilarducci:

    The volatility of this recession is much greater than it was even in the last recession. And in those times, you have employers going very short-term and getting rid of head count, getting rid of high-cost head count. It is the order of the day.

  • Paul Solman:

    Age bias has been amplified by the virus, but, of course, it's nothing new.

  • Marjorie Madfis:

    I was part of a large resource action, which is basically a purge of employees.

  • Paul Solman:

    Marjorie Madfis, then 57, was a digital marketing strategist at IBM.

  • Marjorie Madfis:

    We brought them into the world of Twitter, into Pinterest, and kept sort of pushing forward IBM.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, you're in the right place at the right time with the right skills?

  • Marjorie Madfis:

    Yes, I was. Yes, the rest of my team was.

  • Paul Solman:

    But, in 2013, most of Madfis' team was shown the door, as were 6,000 others at IBM.

  • Marjorie Madfis:

    The majority of people who were let go were people over 50.

  • Paul Solman:

    Sixty-one-year-old Ed Miyoshi had joined IBM right out of college.

  • Ed Miyoshi:

    I was always the young guy. And then, suddenly, I wasn't anymore.

  • Paul Solman:

    In 2016, Miyoshi worked in a unit that ran computer systems for other firms.

  • Ed Miyoshi:

    I had been a high performer for many years, so my salary was top of the grid. My benefits were higher than most people's. I was old enough to still qualify for the old IBM pension plan.

    How can you be a young hip company working on all these newfangled things and having a lot of people with gray hair running around doing it?

  • Paul Solman:

    First, the other members of his team, all older, were ousted. And then:

  • Ed Miyoshi:

    I'm on my 35th service anniversary, and I get a call from my manager.

    And he said, "I hate to tell you this, but you're being resource-actioned" a week before Christmas.

  • Paul Solman:

    Really?

  • Ed Miyoshi:

    Yes. What was interesting, though, was I was hired to do that exact same job as a contractor after I was laid off from IBM.

  • Paul Solman:

    Were you getting paid anywhere near the same amount?

  • Ed Miyoshi:

    The first year I worked as a contractor, I made $20,000 less.

  • Paul Solman:

    The next year, Miyoshi made $40,000 a year less, but he stuck with it, until last year.

  • Ed Miyoshi:

    One day I come into the office, and it's, you have to — you're done. You have to go.

  • Peter Gosselin:

    We're talking about tens and tens of thousands of people.

  • Paul Solman:

    Journalist Peter Gosselin says age bias at IBM was widespread.

  • Peter Gosselin:

    Basically, 86 percent of all the people that IBM laid off in the last five years have been older workers.

  • Paul Solman:

    Older meaning older than 50?

  • Peter Gosselin:

    Yes.

  • Paul Solman:

    IBM has maintained that age plays no role in employment actions. But, in August, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that the company engaged in systematic age discrimination.

    Ed Miyoshi joined a class action suit against the firm. But IBM is no outlier, says Gosselin.

  • Peter Gosselin:

    Looking across a nationally representative sample of older American workers, something like 60 percent of people before they get to be 70, they're laid off.

  • Paul Solman:

    And when Gosselin was 63:

  • Peter Gosselin:

    I myself was laid off from a job. I thought I had a good resume and I could get a job. And I was out for a long, long time.

  • Paul Solman:

    He finally raised money to fund his own reporting on age discrimination at nonprofit ProPublica.

    Ex-IBM-er Ed Miyoshi has plenty of hobbies and may not need the money, but he continues looking for work.

  • Ed Miyoshi:

    I have got some things to offer. I have certainly got some skills. And I'm certainly not ready to watch TV all day for the rest of my life.

  • Paul Solman:

    After her layoff, Marjorie Madfis just gave up looking.

  • Marjorie Madfis:

    I remember having an interview with a young man who came in his jeans, put his feet up on the chair, and was texting during the interview. And that was kind of the aha moment, said, I really don't want to be somebody's mother in a job.

  • Paul Solman:

    Instead, Madfis is doing something less rewarding financially, but far more emotionally, running a nonprofit to teach jobs skills to women with autism, like her American Girl-loving daughter Izzie.

  • Woman:

    I'm learning how to accept feedback. With customers, I learn how to control my temper. Customers can be overwhelming at times.

  • Paul Solman:

    Pre-pandemic, Izzie learned on the job at a secondhand doll store. Now she and her peers meet on Zoom.

    Kathy Docter? She has now been jobless for seven months.

  • Kathy Docter:

    I am running out of money. I had money saved. But, I mean, I'm running out of money now. And now I have to pay for COBRA, which costs an additional $550 a month, because I can't get coverage anywhere else because I have preexisting conditions.

    Unless I go to what's left of Obamacare and try to get coverage there, I'm pretty much stuck. But I can tell you that I will not be able to pay for COBRA after the 1st of the year, because I just can't afford it anymore.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, you will go uninsured?.

  • Kathy Docter:

    I will have to. I don't have any other choice.

  • Paul Solman:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Paul Solman.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sobering story to make us all think.

    Thank you, Paul.

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