Early retirement forcing LIers to take Social Security early

When Larry Lapka lost his longtime job in publishing in 2019, something in the back of his head told him it would be his last full-time job.

Lapka, like many older workers, said the hunt for a new job was rife with disappointment and frustration. The pandemic didn’t help.

In September 2020, at age 63 and without any job prospects on the horizon, he went from job seeker to retiree, taking Social Security years ahead of when he had planned. Starting his benefits early means his monthly checks will be reduced for the rest of his life.

“I was pushed into retirement, there’s no doubt about it,” said Lapka, who lives in Massapequa Park with his family. “I wanted to work until I was at least 70. I feel like I got seven years taken from me.”

Older workers like Lapka faced hurdles in the job market long before the pandemic.

More than half of workers who entered their 50s with stable, full-time jobs were laid off or pushed out of their positions at least once by age 65, according to an analysis of employment data from 1990 to 2016 conducted by ProPublica and the Urban Institute , a Washington, DC, think tank. Of those who lost their jobs, only 10% ever found one that paid as much as their previous position.

Today, after two years of economic upheaval caused by COVID-19, thousands of older Long Islanders are among the long-term unemployed or have retired early — the lucky ones by choice but many feeling forced into a decision that could hurt them financially for the rest of their lives.

Nationwide, more than 42% of job seekers ages 55 and over were considered long-term unemployed in December, meaning they had been unsuccessfully looking for work for 27 weeks or longer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzed by AARP. By contrast, just over 29% of workers ages 16 to 54 were considered long-term unemployed.

Some older workers, especially those who saw big gains from stock prices and home values, chose rising to comfortably retire early. But others who lost jobs or were fearful of COVID exposure at work — and who did not have a retirement nest egg or pension to fall back on — were forced to begin taking Social Security early, a decision with long-term financial repercussions.

Social Security is available beginning at 62, but starting benefits before your full retirement age (which is between 65 and 67, depending on when you were born) could reduce your monthly checks by 25% or more. If you can delay taking benefits even longer, until 70, your monthly checks could increase by 25% or more.

“Obviously the longer you work, the longer your money is going to last,” said Ed Slott, a Rockville Center-based financial and retirement advisor and founder of IRAhelp.com. “The minute you turn off the faucet the sooner everything starts to close in on you,” he said.

“The longer you lay off retirement funds, the longer they’ll last you and the bigger the checks you’ll get later on will be,” Slott said. “If you do have a choice, it always pays to work longer.”

In an AARP survey of 3,600 US adults ages 50 and over published last month, 20% of respondents said they retired earlier than planned because of the pandemic.

The New York Labor Department does not provide local demographic breakdowns of who is the labor force or why, but leaving some sources suggest the impact of these “excess retirees” is profound.

Nationwide as of August 2021, just over 2.4 million excess retirements due to COVID-19 had occurred, representing more than half the 4.2 million people who left the labor force from the beginning of the pandemic to the second quarter of 2021, according to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

And early retirements don’t just impact older workers; they affect the economy overall.

Last month, Long Island’s labor force — the total of all those working or actively looking for work — fell to one of its lowest levels since the late 1990s, totaling 1,419,200, down 35,700 people from December 2020.

A major factor in that shrinking labor pool is early exits by older workers, who make up a larger percentage of the Island’s workforce than in other parts of the state or country.

For older workers who want to continue working, age discrimination appears to be a contributing factor to their job-hunting difficulties.

More than three-quarters of job seekers ages 40 to 64 said they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace, according to a 2021 AARP survey.

“That is the highest number by far we have ever seen, so it’s very disturbing,” said Susan Weinstock, vice president of financial resilience programming for AARP.

Weinstock said many workers and job seekers, starting as young as 40, are subject to discriminatory questions or actions by potential employers.

Interview comments like “We’re looking to hire someone, but you seem overqualified,” or questions like “How long until you’re going to retire?” are a couple of ways employers may tip their hand, Weinstock said.

“They wouldn’t ask that of a 25-year-old,” she said.

“I’ve been told by recruiters [to] not put dates on my resume because they can tell that you’re older,” said Pauline Mosca-Cyphers, 61. “I don’t want to lie on my resume.”

Mosca-Cyphers, of Central Islip, was let go from her managerial position at a financial advisory firm in 2019, after 32 years. She believes that her salary and tenure at the company played a big part in her layoff.

“They took my salary and hired three people,” she said.

Using the company’s severance package to cover expenses while looking for work, she landed a job as an office manager at a vitamin manufacturer in August 2020. The position paid just over half of her previous $100,000-a-year salary.

That company, she said, was largely run by younger people, which made it “very hard for me to adapt” to the corporate culture. She was laid off again in January 2021.

Someone with the company later told her that her personality was not a fit with the company’s younger workforce, she said.

Since August, she said she’s applied for at least 200 jobs — largely remote or part-time — and still nothing has come through.

“The job search process has been tedious,” she said, adding that her age has come up as a factor a few times in interviews.

“‘How long do you plan to work? How many years do you plan to give us? Oh, you have a lot of experience.’ I get that a lot,” she said.

For some job seekers, even years of experience in relatively in-demand industries like technology have not paved the way to that next long-term gig.

Manoj Kalavar, 56, said he’s been applying for web development and IT positions since losing his job as an IT supervisor for a medical office in Brooklyn at the start of the pandemic in March 2020. And while he’s landed some short-term freelance work, he has yet to find a full-time position.

“With the pandemic, everything fell apart,” Kalavar said.

When his office mandated that all nonessential personnel stay home, Kalavar and his coworkers in IT were furloughed. Eventually, he filed for unemployment, and not long after moved from his home in Nassau to his parents’ house in Dix Hills to save money.

Kalavar, who had worked at the medical office since 2008, said he has an extensive skill set in computer sciences. He said he spent the early years of his career working at Northrop Grumman, troubleshooting electrical engineering issues on high-performance aircraft in the 1990s.

Despite that, he said, he felt at a disadvantage.

“If you happen to be 23 years old, everyone wants you,” he said. “When you’re 56 years old, no one wants to hire you. The global pandemic adds insult to injury. It’s like a two-headed monster.”

Even when older workers do land new positions, they often come with steep salary cuts.

Jonathan Glazer, 54, of Commack had spent the first 30 years of his career working in the insurance industry before his most recent employer restructured in 2017. As a result, he lost his job after only one year at the post.

He has since found a job working remotely for a firearms accessories dealer in Pennsylvania.

Glazer, a firearms hobbyist, said while he’s grateful for the job and enjoys the work, it pays a quarter of his former salary.

“I’ve been burned through my savings,” he said.

To help cover the missing income, Glazer said he picked up a part-time job in September working four nights a week at an auto parts store.

He continues to look for higher-paying jobs, but believes his age must be playing a part in hiring decisions, given his extensive credentials in the insurance sector.

“I would say, ‘Hey I see your company has posted this position.’ and I would get, ‘You’re way too senior for this role, you would be bored with it,'” he said. “I’m not going to beg for it, but what they’re telling me is I’m not going to be considered.”

Others have been in a better position to retire early.

Corinne Cortes, 57, a former math teacher in Valley Stream, didn’t plan to retire last year after a 31-year career in education. But after a year of teaching remotely, dealing with health concerns over COVID, and feeling burnout, she had had enough.

“There’s this sense of reward in teaching students and seeing them have those ‘aha’ moments,” she said. “That’s what teaching is all about, and on the screen it doesn’t happen.”

While Cortes said that, ideally, she would have worked a few more years, she has her pension and hopes to grow her side business as a wedding officiant, CLC Connections. However, retiring meant losing her health insurance, for which she now pays about $700 a month.

“Because I retired at 57, I don’t qualify for Medicare, so I have to pay my medical expenses,” she said. “That did impact my family, as well, because I no longer cover my children.”

For Lapka, who retired early after losing his job at a now-defunct trade publication in Westbury, leaving the workforce behind was the last thing he wanted. But after an intensive, nearly yearlong search for a comparable position — and some departures into other fields as well — the financial strain and frustration became too much.

“I had basically had enough,” he said. “I did everything I could do. I did everything I was told to do.”

During the first six months of his search, Lapka would spend eight or more hours a day looking for work. By the time he stopped in September 2020, he estimates, he might have applied for thousands of openings.

“I kind of knew that my last job was my last job. But I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t,” he said.

He now collects about $1,600 a month in Social Security and has been able to supplement that with a few freelance editing jobs.

It hasn’t been the retirement he envisioned.

“I haven’t enjoyed the fruits of retirement,” Lapka said. “I had this view of retirement that you take things easy, you take trips. It hasn’t happened that way for me.”

Resources for job seekers

Visit AARP’s free online job board to find employers committed to hiring adults 50 and up, jobs.aarp.org.

For online work skills training, visit AARP’s Skills Builder for Work, aarp.org/workskills. One course is free, but there is a charge for others, with discounts for AARP members.

For free online resume reviews and advice, open to all, visit AARP’s service, aarp.org/work/resume-advisor.


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