More Vermont Seniors Are Working, Due to Financial Need or Choice. They May Help Plug the Labor Gap. | This Old State | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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More Vermont Seniors Are Working, Due to Financial Need or Choice. They May Help Plug the Labor Gap.

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Published April 17, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


Cheryl Rose - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Cheryl Rose

Cheryl Rose was ready to retire after 15 years as a care coordinator for Cathedral Square, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing for older adults. An avid crafter, she was eager to spend more time knitting and painting.

In 2021, Rose, then 64, stopped working and started living off her savings and her Social Security payments — roughly $1,900 a month. Soon, though, money became tight. After her $950 monthly apartment rent, a car payment and other expenses, almost nothing remained. Rose couldn't afford to eat out with friends, go to the movies or travel. Even her hobbies took a hit.

"I didn't have enough money to buy paints," Rose said. "I began thinking that maybe I was a little premature in retiring."

So when a Cathedral Square maintenance coordinator position opened up last year — in the same building as her apartment in South Burlington — Rose decided to return to full-time work.

Rose now spends her weekdays coordinating work orders for leaky pipes and other maintenance needs. A few of her watercolors of flowers and pumpkin spice lattes hang in her office. Rose still makes time to paint but picks up her brushes less often than she'd like.

"I was told I was saving enough to live off of in retirement," said Rose, now 67, "but with inflation and the cost of living going up, that has not been the case." She said many of her friends are in a similar position: "We have to just keep going."

People 65 and older represent a fast-growing segment of Vermont's labor force. The line between work and retirement has blurred in a state with one of the country's oldest populations. Some people choose to keep working because it gives them purpose or staves off boredom. Others, like Rose, feel like they have no choice. They fear they'll outlive their savings, if they have any to begin with.

Some Vermont employers are adjusting by offering shorter, less arduous shifts to accommodate older workers, who they say are often more reliable and knowledgeable than younger applicants. And while postponing retirement may strike some as a bleak version of the golden years, the growing pool of older workers could represent a boon for employers desperate to fill jobs, while providing energetic older residents a chance to remain productive.

Workers are often forgotten after they hit 65, the customary cutoff for employment, said Glenn McRae, the director of the Northeast Transportation Workforce Center at the University of Vermont. But in reality, many have the ability and desire to contribute for far longer.

With much attention on Vermont's broader worker shortage, McRae asked, "Why aren't we focused on that as a decade-long stopgap measure?"

A fifth of Vermont's population is 65 or older. The number of seniors with jobs more than doubled from 15,000 in 2005, when the state first began collecting such data, to 36,000 last year. Seniors now account for about 10 percent of the overall workforce.

That's not just because more Vermonters are now 65-plus. A bigger share of seniors work today, a sign that, for many, retirement is coming later — if at all.

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Roughly 25 percent of seniors were employed last year, compared to 18 percent in 2005. Similar trends are playing out nationally: Older Americans are projected to account for more than 50 percent of the country's labor-force growth in the coming decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Several factors explain why. Modern medicine has lengthened lifespans and improved overall health for many seniors, making it easier to maintain longer careers. The nature of work has changed, too, with fewer people toiling in physically demanding roles in factories or on farms, compared to past generations. Often remote work is an option.

Simple financial arithmetic also plays a role. Fewer people have fixed pensions today than in previous generations, and close to half of American adults have no personal retirement savings at all, according to a recent report from the office of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Social Security benefits alone often aren't enough for seniors to live on, especially after recent years of inflation. "They're finding that their retirement isn't stretching as far," said Cameron DeRose-Barden, a financial adviser in the Burlington area. "They've got to find a way to supplement without withdrawing more."

Interviews with Vermonters who are working into their seventies and beyond reflect a range of motivations for staying employed, some as intangible as Yankee self-sufficiency.

Patty Gillespie, a 73-year-old paraeducator at C.P. Smith Elementary School in Burlington, keeps working part-time solely for enjoyment. Gillespie doesn't need a paycheck anymore; her husband, Jeff Barrows, inherited a trust upon the death of his father, Del Barrows, the one-time owner of Johnson Woolen Mills.

But Gillespie said her job gets her out of the house to spend the day with colleagues and kids she loves. She recalled recently telling a young girl that she hoped to live to 100. "Ms. Patty," the girl replied, "I hope you make it to way over 100."

"Who wouldn't love to work in that situation?" Gillespie asked.

James Commentucci - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • James Commentucci

James Commentucci, a 62-year-old recovery coach, returned to work out of need: He had burned through his savings while in the depths of his own addiction. "I had no money," Commentucci said. "I had to get to work."

Commentucci worked with a job-training program for older Vermonters called A4TD to find his position at Turning Point of Windham County three years ago. Commentucci said helping others during their darkest moments has been uplifting, but it also has been a lifeline for him.

"The backbone of my recovery has been having an income," Commentucci said.

Wayne Lemire, a 77-year-old hayer from West Windsor, said he would keep working even if he didn't have to, despite the physical demands.

"I want to die on the farm," Lemire said. "I like being in the open air and listening to the sound of my tractor running."

Most Americans expect to work well beyond 65, surveys show. But doing so can be difficult. Some people are forced to leave jobs because of health issues. Others feel like they are nudged out the door before they're ready to go.

Older workers can find job hunting to be challenging. Organizations that assist them say they routinely hear from frustrated candidates who believe they're being passed over because of their age. Mary Hayden, executive director of the Vermont Association of Area Agencies on Aging, said she's heard of seniors being advised to dye their hair or get Botox treatments to improve their chances.

"Women get hit with it even sooner," Hayden said. "Culturally, we have a lot of work to do."

The tide may slowly be turning, however, as a shortage of working-age Vermonters spurs employers to consider candidates they may have previously overlooked. Some are making an extra effort to recruit and retain 65-and-over workers.

That includes Gardener's Supply, whose Milton-based distribution center is largely staffed by retirement-age Vermonters. The company offers technology training and a flexible work schedule that includes four-hour shifts. Those policies were cited when the company won the Governor's Award for Business Excellence in Supporting Mature Workers in 2018.

"Generational diversity is critical for us," said Christie Kane, the company's vice president of human resources. "Especially given that it reflects our customer demographic."

Clara Martin Center, a nonprofit mental health facility in Randolph, shared the award in 2018, the last year it was presented, for its efforts to retain employees past retirement age. Facing dozens of unfilled openings for social work positions, the nonprofit has sought to cobble together a workforce of semiretired employees to meet clients' needs.

According to Jena Trombly, Clara Martin's director of human resources and compliance, offering older employees the ability to transition to part-time work has allowed the center to retain valuable social workers. In 2022, more than a third of the facility's employees were over 55.

While the arrangement has complicated scheduling, Trombly sees older workers as vital. "If someone's 55 or older, they quite possibly have several decades of experience," she said. "There's a level of groundedness and stability in their life."

Economists agree that keeping older workers in the labor force is particularly beneficial to states such as Vermont, where more than half the population is over 43. A state report in 2013 asserted that Vermont's economic health depends upon keeping older people in the workforce.

Despite such warnings and a severe labor shortage, Vermont has done little since then to support that goal. The governor's recognition award was paused in 2019 because of staff turnover at the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, or DAIL, and has not been awarded since. The department also cut a position responsible for building connections between older workers and employers. And a public vow from the chair of Vermont's House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development to focus on the older workforce in 2022 has so far produced nothing solid.

A new state plan may spur fresh efforts. The Age Strong VT Plan, published earlier this year, calls for increasing the 60-and-older workforce participation rate as a way to ensure older Vermonters are financially secure.

It suggests expanding digital literacy programs, restoring DAIL's "mature worker coordinator position" and collecting better data so that the state knows more about its older workforce. The plan also recommends creating a "toolkit" for businesses that want to better recruit and retain older workers and suggests making part-time workers eligible for critical benefits such as supplemental health insurance and paid leave.

Rose, the Cathedral Square employee, worries about what might happen if her health deteriorates to the point where she can no longer work and has to return to a more frugal way of life. She'd like to try retiring again in a few years but is not sure when she'll be able to afford it.

"My goal now is to save enough to have a better cushion to fall back on," Rose said.

For now, Rose finds fulfillment in the convenience of her working life at Cathedral Square. Many of the maintenance requests she handles come from her friends and neighbors. She enjoys the camaraderie of colleagues and once again has enough money to go out for dinner and buy craft supplies. And on Fridays, at the end of her busy workweek, she meets friends at the South Burlington Senior Center to paint.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Employees of a Certain Age | More Vermont seniors are working, due to financial need or choice. They may help plug the labor gap."

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