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Tampa Bay’s older workers among those struggling to stay afloat, save for retirement

Some have left their jobs because they fear contracting the coronavirus, experts say. Others were laid off during the pandemic.

Margie Pagano has worked with seniors and their finances every day for nearly 20 years as a retirement specialist, most recently with Edward Jones in Trinity. But this year has been unlike any other.

The pandemic has been especially rough on older workers, Pagano said. Those who have been laid off find it more difficult to get rehired.

“And a lot of them have quit (working) because of COVID,” Pagano said, “because they’re worried they’ll get it.”

Some of her senior clients are spending down their retirement savings to pay the bills, she said. Others are struggling to make ends meet.

During the pandemic “workers 55 and older lost jobs sooner, were rehired slower and face higher unemployment than mid-career workers ages 35 to 54,” according to a study released Oct. 20 by The New School for Social Research, part of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis.

For the first time in 50 years, unemployment rates for workers 55 and older over a six-month period were higher than for mid-career workers, according to the report.

And the situation can be dire for working seniors with less retirement savings who are close to retirement or already retired.

Three in 10 Americans had dug into their retirement funds during the pandemic, according to a survey published in May by MagnifyMoney, a financial blog under the parent company of LendingTree. More than half of them used the funds to pay for essentials, such as groceries and housing, according to the report.

Now, older workers have to find a way to replace that income and savings.

Seniors who are still working are in a tough spot, said Tracey Gronniger, directing attorney of economic security for Justice in Aging, a national advocacy organization that fights senior poverty through law.

“For older adults, it’s been particularly difficult in a way that it hasn’t in the past, because older adults are definitely facing more unemployment than might be expected otherwise,” Gronniger said.

Low-income older adults already are working with less savings, so losing their employment places them in financial danger, she said.

“We’re just seeing people who are being forced to make really important decisions about how they’re going to survive at a much earlier point in time than they expected,” she said. “And that might mean not eating every day, which is a horrible thing to have to think about, or not being able to live in the home that you expected to be in for the rest of your life.”

Many older adults are calling the Justice in Aging office with questions about what they should do and how they should plan for the future. For some, the best answer might be claiming early retirement, Gronniger said.

Those with disabilities that prevent them from working should apply for Social Security disability benefits, she said. People who have suffered significant health setbacks during the pandemic may be eligible.

Some seniors may be eligible for Supplemental Security Income in addition to Social Security, Gronniger said. Supplemental Security Income is for extremely low-income seniors, age 65 and older, and people with disabilities. The maximum benefit is $783 a month for one person.

Gronniger hopes some older adults will be able to reenter the workforce in the coming year and “get back to a place where they can continue saving for retirement.”

“In this moment of crisis, I think there are a lot of people who are scrambling to make ends meet,” she said. “I hope that that’s not something that lasts for the long term, but it is going to have long-term effects.”

Pagano suggests that seniors in this situation create a budget and look for ways to minimize expenses. They can look for less expensive housing, change healthcare plans or try to curb utility bills, she said.

“It’s tough to make changes, but sometimes a little change can make a difference,” Pagano said.

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