Too young to retire but at risk for Covid, older Americans struggle to find work

Elaine Simons, a 61-year-old substitute art teacher in the Seattle, Washington area, was on a 10-month contract and hoping to settle into a more permanent role at the school where she was teaching when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the US in March 2020.

Her school shut down for the remainder of the school year, with Simons having to pack up her classroom and learn to navigate the technology necessary to teach remotely. En junio 2020, Simons was informed her teaching contract would not be renewed.

Algunos 5.7 millones de trabajadores siglos 55 or older lost their jobs in the US in March and April 2020, 15% of workers in an age demographic that has also experienced the vast majority of Covid-19 deaths. The unemployment rate for workers ages 65 and older hit a record rate de 7.5% en 2020.

Simons was able to find a summer teaching position but had to file for unemployment assistance before the fall 2020 school year began. Desde entonces, she has switched back and forth between taking periods of substitute teaching jobs whenever they’re available, and reverting to unemployment during periods where she’s been unable to find work.

She found, despite claims of substitute teacher shortages, that longer term substitute contract positions weren’t being offered, and older workers at higher risk for Covid-19 like herself aren’t willing to take substitute gigs day by day, at various different schools without any compensation for quarantine if they catch or are exposed to Covid-19. Simons is fully vaccinated and boosted, but still worried about catching Covid-19 and exposing her elderly mother, whom she helps care for.

“Some like myself are too young to retire, so I’m still looking for that dream job, I want my permanent job. I want to be fully set for my pension and my social security,” said Simons, who cannot afford to retire early because the social security benefits would be far too low to live on.

Even with unemployment, Simons has had to rely on food banks, food donations, and mutual aid with neighbors. She has tried to get ahead on bills in anticipation of receiving no income if her unemployment benefits expire and she’s unable to obtain a new substitute contracting position, which has been more difficult as many employment resources offered to the unemployed, such as job counseling and training, have been limited during the pandemic.

“I’m sad that at almost 62 años, I don’t see the likelihood of getting employment at this point,” added Simons. “It’s really hard for people in my age bracket. I think that we’re feeling undervalued. We’re feeling missed. Nobody seems to care that we’re also part of the high risk community.”

The unemployment rate has tumbled dramatically since the height of the pandemic but older workers are still struggling to find work despite all the reports of worker shortages.

Jerry Jenkins, 63, of Lehigh Acres, Florida, lost his job at a manufacturing plant in 2021, where he had worked for seven years. With Florida’s maximum unemployment benefits among the lowest in the US, a $275 es de, Jenkins was forced to cash in part of his retirement savings as he is still trying to find another job.

“I’m losing my retirement because no one will hire me. I can’t even get anybody to answer my resumes,” said Jenkins. “I’ve even tried to go back to some of the jobs I’ve had in my past to get rehired, but no one seems to be interested because I only have two or three years before retirement.”

He expressed frustrations with the touting of falling unemployment rates, given he and millions of other workers aren’t classified as ‘“in the labor force” in part due to expired unemployment benefits.

A June 2021 analysis by economists at the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at The New School found por lo menos 1.7 million more older workers than expected retired due to the pandemic. The analysis encouraged policy solutions such as expanding Medicare eligibility to the age of 50, expanding social security benefits, and creating a department dedicated to older workers at the US Department of Labor.

Monique Morrisey, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, explained there are differences among affected older workers, con 55 a 64 year olds who are not eligible for Medicare and in most cases are not yet receiving social security, and workers 65 and older who left the workforce. The issues facing late middle age workers are more worrisome, given their economic demographics.

“Among this younger group, the job losses are concentrated among non-college educated workers in lower paid jobs and are disproportionately also jobs that have high contact with the public,” said Morrissey. “It’s a lot harder to get another job when you’re an older worker.”

A survey published by AARP in May 2021 encontró 78% of workers ages 40 a 65 reported either seeing or experiencing age discrimination in the workplace, the highest level found by AARP since they began surveying the question in 2003. More than half of jobseekers over the age of 55 fueron classified as unemployed for longer than 27 weeks in early 2021.

As of October 2021, older workers were the furthest behind in employment recovery among age demographics.

Beverly Matozzo of Deptford, New Jersey, worked about 12 hours a week at a school cafeteria for seven years, but was laid off once the school year ended last summer and she hasn’t been able to return as she is recovering from a knee injury and from Covid-19.

Matozzo, 73, filed for unemployment, but has yet to receive any compensation because the office that assisted in filing her claim made an error with her working dates and she hasn’t been able to get the state unemployment agency to fix the problem and get her claim paid out. She has also been locked out of her account and still trying to resolve that issue.

“I have been told a thousand different things. All I want is my 17 weeks of unemployment, which is what I am owed,” said Matozzo. “I’ve had to have three shots in my knee, walked with crutches for several weeks, and now I’ve just gotten over Covid. I just want to be with people. I enjoyed being around the kids, they make you feel alive and fun, so as soon as I can, I’m going back.”

57-year-old Dawn Leeson of Springhill, Florida, ran a nonprofit after-school program before Covid-19 forced her to shut down the program in March 2020, and she contracted Covid around the same time as her son was hospitalized in New Orleans. She receives social security disability benefits, which aren’t enough to survive on, and limits her options for new work.

“My job is still not available. I’ve looked a little bit even though I’m not ready to go into the workforce because of my fears of Covid. I’m high risk and so is my partner,” said Leeson. “I know at this point I don’t have a lot of options. Who is going to want someone who is disabled and 57?"

Leeson’s unemployment benefits were cut off in September 2021 when federal extended unemployment benefits ended without any further extensions, after it took her months to start receiving benefits due to long delays and backlogs. She has gone from having zero debt to accumulating about $10,000 in credit card debt in order to make ends meet over the past several months.

“I barely leave my home, so I don’t have gas and car expenses. We eat cheaply. I’ve lost 5lbs mainly by eating just a sandwich for dinner most nights,” added Leeson. “I made it through the holidays, but I’m really scared about what comes next.”

This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, the Journalists Network on Generations and the RRF Foundation for Aging.

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