My 24-year-old longtime friend, a delivery driver, suspects he has COVID-19 and is self-quarantining. The 28-year-old bartender who refilled my glass while I drafted graduate school papers had to file for unemployment after losing his job when New York’s restaurants and bars shuttered.
Scrolling through my friends list, I started making notes of all the people I should call and check in with. A 23-year-old actress who was supposed to start filming a TV show soon. My 25-year-old friend whose administrative job went remote a bit too late. And the 28-year-old academic who currently lives near Rome, Italy, Europe’s epicenter of this pandemic.
The COVID-19 outbreak has zombie movie energy to it with an undercurrent of normalcy. We’re still driving to the grocery and, maybe, with a little more creativity than usual, we’re planning meals. The small brewery near me has set up a drive-thru. And people walking their dogs are smiling at each other more. Human resiliency always amazes me.
Nonetheless, the nuts and bolts of survival for millions of Americans are existentially threatened. Everyone, across every demographic, is affected. Still, I’m particularly worried about the medical, emotional, and economic implications for people in their 20s—my age group.
After initial reports to the contrary, CDC data now suggests that COVID-19 really is dangerous to younger people. Even for those who don’t get the virus, self-quarantine can dangerously isolate those at risk for suicide. It’s the second-leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34. And, although data varies by state, people aged 25 to 34 are among the most at risk to die from opioid use. Will hospitals have the capacity to address overdose cases if patients with COVID-19 fill their beds?
Of course, not all 20-somethings are experiencing COVID-19 the same way. My quarantine in rural New York has been a perverse vacation from New York City and its suburbs. My sleep schedule has been more regular. I’m cooking more often. I’m sharing a roof with good company, and there are huskies in the barn outside. Writing about health care is in-demand work right now. For me, this could be worse; very little in the world is about me right now.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that over 417,000 restaurant and bar workers lost their jobs in March, a figure that will be dwarfed when April's job numbers are released. On March 23rd, only 9 states had issued stay-at-home orders. Now, 42 states have 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment insurance during the first week of April alone. This outbreak will render some businesses insolvent—particularly those with low operating profits like most restaurants and bars. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, the median age for bartenders is 34.3. For food service workers in general, it’s 31.9. Only 1.4% of food and beverage workers are unionized, and few receive benefits from their employers.
This is a labor market crisis that could make people in their 20s housing insecure. Almost half of the country’s residential tenant population is under 30 years old, many of whom work in sectors like food and beverage service or retail where low wages aren't conducive to homeownership. The CARES Act allowed many homeowners to place their mortgages into forbearance. No such relief has been offered to renters. Although some cities have halted evictions, none have suspended rent payments. The courts will eventually open and the rent for jobless people will still be due. To come full circle, there is strong correlation between poverty rates and suicide rates—especially during economic downturns.
This is a formative moment in young people’s lives. Even if we address the most cataclysmic of potential consequences, college seniors will still remember missing their graduations. Rescheduled wedding dates will still confuse anniversaries for decades.
Our readers work predominately in the benefits world; our industry will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic with humility about how important benefits are for 21st century workers. Uninsured Americans understand the importance of health care right now. So do insured, but recently unemployed, Americans who now worry about how to pay their premiums.
If you’re a newly minted benefits professional like me, you’re probably also working from home, busy, and being paid on time. We’re doing important work right now, but we’re also the lucky ones. Even though we don’t have lawmaking abilities, there are small ways we can help out even when we’re off the clock.
Remember, we’re all in this together.
Chris Fielder, Staff Writer, has been with Segal Benz since 2019, working with private sector employers, public sector entities, and multiemployer trust funds.