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.
So when Edna Harris came up to me
one day about a year ago and told me she wanted to retire, I was very
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
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
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.