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Watch Out: Layoffs Are Killers

It is almost a cliché that layoffs lead to higher mortality rates, but now there is science to back up some of the anecdotes. Michael Luo of The New York Times reports on the three men laid off from a Lackawanna steel plant who suffered heart attacks in the wake of the announcement, and how they fit into broader research on the topic of economic stress and personal health.

One 2006 study by a group of epidemiologists at Yale found that layoffs more than doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke among older workers. Another paper, published last year by Kate W. Strully, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Albany, found that a person who lost a job had an 83 percent greater chance of developing a stress-related health problem, like diabetes, arthritis or psychiatric issues.

But it’s not just the immediate stress of a layoff that seemingly has effects on workers’ health; there may well be lasting effects of being laid off.

The paper, by Till von Wachter, a Columbia University economist, and Daniel G. Sullivan, director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, examined death records and earnings data in Pennsylvania during the recession of the early 1980s and concluded that death rates among high-seniority male workers jumped by 50 percent to 100 percent in the year after a job loss, depending on the worker’s age. Even 20 years later, deaths were 10 percent to 15 percent higher.

On a day when President Obama is leading an increasingly frustrated effort to pass health reform — a leading part of which is limiting insurers’ abilities to use pre-existing conditions or events (like rape and domestic violence) to deny people coverage — in a month in which unemployment has risen and remains about 10 percent, it’s interesting to note that economic stressors may well have long-term consequences. But at least in this economy, insurers can’t possibly call being laid off a pre-existing condition and have large enough risk pools to make money.

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