After 40 years of work, 
she still can’t retire

    I had no idea she was that old. In the nine years she had worked for me, she never seemed to age. She took good care of herself, never a hair out of place, always impeccably dressed. We took to calling her "The Divine Ms. Harris."
    So when Edna Harris came up to me one day about a year ago and told me she wanted to retire, I was very surprised.
    She had worked as a cashier for the last 40 years and had nothing to show for it. When she started with me nine years ago, she was making about $5 an hour.
    The years flew by, and she kept performing. Day in, day out, the same old job, executed with competence, honesty and integrity. After nine years, she was still a cashier, but making $8 an hour.
    She is a delightful woman, and very much alone. No husband, no children, only a sister in Oklahoma. And no savings.
    And now she wanted to retire. She was tired and she was turning 65, much to my disbelief. She’d had enough. She didn’t know what she’d do, but she knew she was 65 and shouldn’t be working 40 hours a week. She’d paid her dues and was tired of the grind.
   It was time to live off of Social Security. She got her first monthly check soon after she turned 65. It was for $579.
   Not nearly enough. Her rent, in the same apartment she had lived in since 1969, was recently raised to $385. That didn’t leave much.
   She had expected more. She came to me, asking what she should do. She was visibly upset, but too strong to cry. More than anything, she was scared.
    I asked her about her savings. She showed me a couple of savings passbooks. The amounts were enough to cover a few months’ rent, nothing more. I knew the answer, but I asked anyway if she had an Individual Retirement Account. She had no idea what I was talking about.
    This was not a woman who wasted money. Every year when she took her vacation I would ask her where she was going. And every year she replied matter of factly that she was going nowhere. Her vacation meant an extra gin and tonic or two at sunset and not having to get up the next morning.
   She couldn’t afford vacations; she couldn’t afford savings. And before she knew it, or I knew it, there was no time left to build for retirement. It was here.
   So what does she do? Not much choice, really. To Edna, retirement meant she could cut her hours from 40 to 24 per week, thanks to her lifetime contributions to Social Security.
   Now she only works three days a week. She claims she’s doing fine, but when I talked to her the other morning, I could see she’s still scared. For the first time since I’ve known her, she looked old and tired.
   For Edna, the future is not bright. She’s working less, but her savings is not growing. One of these days, weeks or years, she’ll be able to work no more. Then what?
   If nothing else, Edna’s plight certainly made me think more about retirement, not only for myself but for my other employees. No one else in my company is anywhere near retirement age, but neither was Edna 20 years ago.
   The question is whether providing for Edna’s retirement was partly my responsibility as an employer. I contributed the employer’s share of Social Security taxes over the years, so I suppose I did indeed contribute to the $579 she is receiving.
   But obviously, that is not enough. She needed more, and I wasn’t much help. Her years of service could have been rewarded by contributing each year to a company sponsored retirement plan that would allow contributions of tax deferred dollars to provide for the retirement of all employees upon reaching the age of 65.
    A little here, a little there, and Edna would have had a nice nest egg to draw from. But I was living for the present over those years, and so, consequently, was Edna.
   She made retirement real. She also made it look very, very scary. She’ll survive, and I’ll help her where I can, but retirement will never be the dream for Edna Harris that it once had been. And the saddest part is that it could have been so much better.
    If nothing else, I learned something. I recently made the first contribution to a company wide retirement plan. It may be too late for Edna, but I no longer think it’s too soon for the rest of us.

 

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