Some businesses seem determined to wait them out. Wages have risen, but many employers appear reluctant to make other changes to attract workers, like flexible schedules and better benefits. That may be partly because, for all their complaints about a labor shortage, many companies are finding that they can get by with fewer workers, in some instances by asking customers to accept long waits or reduced service.
“They’re making a lot of profits in part because they’re saving on labor costs, and the question is how long can that go on,” said Julia Pollak, chief economist for the employment site ZipRecruiter. Eventually, she said, customers may get tired of busing their own tables or sitting on hold for hours, and employers may be forced to give into workers’ demands.
Some businesses are already changing how they operate. When Karter Louis opened his latest restaurant this year, he abandoned the industry-standard approach to staffing, with kitchen workers earning low wages and waiters relying on tips. At Soul Slice, his soul-food pizza restaurant in Oakland, Calif., everyone works full time, earns a salary rather than an hourly wage, and receives health insurance, retirement benefits and paid vacation. Hiring still hasn’t been easy, he said, but he isn’t having the staffing problems that other restaurants report.
Restaurant owners wondering why they can’t find workers, Mr. Louis said, need to look at the way they treated workers before the pandemic, and also during it, when the industry laid off millions.
“The restaurant industry didn’t really have the back of its people,” he said.
Still, better pay and benefits alone won’t bring back everyone who has left the job market. The steepest drop in labor force participation came among older workers, who faced the greatest risks from the virus. Some may return to work as the health situation improves, but others have simply retired.
And even some nowhere near retirement have made ends meet outside a traditional job.
When Danielle Miess, 30, lost her job at a Philadelphia-area travel agency at the start of the pandemic, it was in some ways a blessing. Some time away helped her realize how bad the job had been for her mental health, and for her finances — her bank balance was negative on the day she was laid off. With federally supplemented unemployment benefits providing more than she made on the job, she said, she gained a measure of financial stability.
Ms. Miess’s unemployment benefits ran out in September, but she isn’t looking for another office job. Instead, she is cobbling together a living from a variety of gigs. She is trying to build a business as an independent travel agent, while also doing house sitting, dog sitting and selling clothes online. She estimates she is earning somewhat more than the roughly $36,000 a year she made before the pandemic, and although she is working as many hours as ever, she enjoys the flexibility.
Job growth slowed to the year’s weakest pace last month as the latest coronavirus wave dashed hopes of an imminent return to normal for the U.S. economy.
Employers added just 194,000 jobs in September, the Labor Department said Friday, down from 366,000 in August — and far below the increase of more than one million in July, before the highly contagious Delta variant led to a spike in coronavirus cases across much of the country. Leisure and hospitality businesses, a main driver of job growth earlier this year, added fewer than 100,000 jobs for the second straight month.
“Employment is slowing when it should be picking up because we’re still on the course set by the virus,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist for the accounting firm Grant Thornton.
for the Federal Reserve, which is weighing when to begin pulling back support for the economy.
It is possible that the recent slowdown is a Delta-driven blip and will soon fade — or, indeed, may already be largely in the past. The data released on Friday was collected in mid-September, when the Delta wave was near its peak. Since then, cases and hospitalizations have fallen in much of the country, and more timely data from private-sector sources suggests that economic activity has begun to rebound. If those trends continue, people on the sidelines could return to the labor force, and hiring should begin to pick up.
“This report is a glance in the rearview mirror,” said Daniel Zhao, an economist at the career site Glassdoor. “There should be some optimism that there should be a reacceleration in October.”
But it is also possible that the damage done by the pandemic will take longer to heal than economists had hoped. Supply-chain disruptions have been unexpectedly persistent, and shifts in consumer behavior during the pandemic may not soon reverse. In surveys, many workers say they are reconsidering their priorities and do not want to return to their old ways of working.
Expanded unemployment benefits, which many businesses blamed for discouraging people from looking for work, ended nationwide early last month. Schools reopened in person in much of the country, which should have made it easier for parents to return to work. Rising vaccination rates were meant to make reluctant workers feel safe enough to resume their job searches. As recently as August, many economists circled September as the month when workers would flood back into the job market.
Instead, the labor force shrank by nearly 200,000 people. The pandemic’s resurgence delayed office reopenings, disrupted the start of the school year and made some people reluctant to accept jobs requiring face-to-face interaction. At the same time, preliminary evidence suggests that the cutoff in unemployment benefits has done little to push people back to work.
“I am a little bit puzzled, to be honest,” said Aneta Markowska, chief financial economist for the investment bank Jefferies. “We all waited for September for this big flurry of hiring on the premise that unemployment benefits and school reopening would bring people back to the labor force. And it just doesn’t seem like we’re seeing that.”
Ms. Markowska said more people might begin to look for work as the Delta variant eased and as they depleted savings accumulated earlier in the pandemic. But some people have retired early or have found other ways to make ends meet and may be slow to return to the labor force, if they come back at all.
In the meantime, people available to work are enjoying a rare moment of leverage. Average earnings rose 19 cents an hour in September and are up more than $1 an hour over the last year, after a series of strong monthly gains. Pay has risen even faster in some low-wage sectors.
Many businesses are finding that higher wages alone aren’t enough to attract workers, said Becky Frankiewicz, president of the Manpower Group, a staffing firm. After years of expecting employees to work whenever they were needed — often with no set schedule and little notice — companies are finding that workers are now setting the terms.
“They get to choose when, where and in what duration they’re working,” Ms. Frankiewicz said. “That is a role reversal. That is a structural change in the workers’ economy.”
Arizmendi Bakery, a cooperative in San Rafael, Calif., recently raised its wages by $3 an hour, by far the biggest increase in its history. But it is still struggling to attract applicants heading into the crucial holiday season.
“There are many, many, many more businesses hiring than there used to be, so we’re competing with many other businesses that we weren’t competing with before,” said Natalie Baddorf, a baker and one of the owners.
The bakery has managed to hire a few people, including one who began this week. But other workers have given their notice to leave. The bakery, which has been operating on reduced hours since the pandemic began, now has enough business to return to its original hours, but cannot find enough labor to do so.
“We’re talking about cloning ourselves,” Ms. Baddorf said.
Jeanna Smialek and Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.
Scott Kirby, the chief executive of United Airlines, reached a breaking point while vacationing in Croatia this summer: After receiving word that a 57-year-old United pilot had died after contracting the coronavirus, he felt it was time to require all employees to get vaccinated.
He paced for about half an hour and then called two of his top executives. “We concluded enough is enough,” Mr. Kirby said in an interview on Thursday. “People are dying, and we can do something to stop that with United Airlines.”
The company announced its vaccine mandate days later, kicking off a two-month process that ended last Monday. Mr. Kirby’s team had guessed that no more than 70 percent of the airline’s workers were already vaccinated, and the requirement helped convince most of the rest: Nearly all of United’s 67,000 U.S. employees have been vaccinated, in one of the largest and most successful corporate efforts of the kind during the pandemic.
The key to United’s success, even in states where vaccination rates are at or below the national average, like Texas and Florida, was a gradual effort that started with providing incentives and getting buy-in from employee groups, especially unions, which represent a majority of its workers.
praise from President Biden, who weeks later announced that regulators would require all businesses with 100 or more workers to require vaccinations or conduct weekly virus testing. And the company drew scorn from conservatives.
Other mandates are producing results, too. Tyson Foods, which announced its vaccine requirement just days before United but has provided workers more time to comply, said on Thursday that 91 percent of its 120,000 U.S. employees had been vaccinated. Similar policies for health care workers by California and hospitals have also been effective.
charge its unvaccinated employees an additional $200 per month for health insurance.
A Year in the Making
United had been laying the groundwork for a vaccine mandate for at least a year. The airline already had experience requiring vaccines. It has mandated a yellow fever vaccination for flight crews based at Dulles International Airport, near Washington, because of a route to Ghana, whose government requires it.
In January, at a virtual meeting, Mr. Kirby told employees that he favored a coronavirus vaccine mandate.
Writing letters to families of the employees who had died from the virus was “the worst thing that I believe I will ever do in my career,” he said at the time, according to a transcript. But while requiring vaccination was “the right thing to do,” United would not be able to act alone, he said.
The union representing flight attendants pushed the company to focus first on access and incentives. It argued that many flight attendants couldn’t get vaccinated because they were not yet eligible in certain states.
Mr. Kirby acknowledged that widespread access would be a precondition. The airline and unions worked together to set up clinics for staff in cities where it has hubs like Houston, Chicago and Newark.
was calling on all employers to do so. A mandate would strike workers as unfair and create unnecessary conflict, the flight attendants’ union argued.
“The more people you get to take action on their own, the more you can focus on reaching the remaining people before any knock-down, drag-out scenario,” said Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents more than 23,000 active workers at United.
In May, the pilots reached an agreement that would give them extra pay for getting vaccinated and the flight attendants worked toward an agreement that would give them extra vacation days. Both incentives declined in value over time and typically expired by early July.
vaccinated by Oct. 25 or within five weeks of a vaccine’s formal approval by the Food and Drug Administration, whichever came first. The timing was intended to ensure that the airline had adequate staffing for holiday travel, said Kate Gebo, who heads human resources.
This time, the unions were more resigned.
“For those 92 percent of pilots who wanted to be vaccinated, we captured $45 million in cash incentives,” said Captain Insler, whose union is challenging the decision to fire employees who don’t comply. “For those who did not want to be vaccinated, we were able to hold off a mandate for several months.”
Getting Over the Finish Line
The success of the incentives — about 80 percent of United’s flight attendants were also vaccinated by the time the airline announced its mandate in August — inspired the company to expand them to all employees, offering a full day’s pay to anyone who provided proof of vaccination by Sept. 20.
The company hadn’t surveyed its workers, but estimated that 60 to 70 percent were already vaccinated. Getting the rest there wouldn’t be easy.
The State of Vaccine Mandates in the U.S.
Vaccine rules.On Aug. 23, the F.D.A. granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for mandates in both the public and private sectors. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
Schools. California became the first state to issue a vaccine mandate for all educators and has announced plans to add the Covid-19 vaccine as a requirement to attend school as early as next fall. Los Angeles already has a vaccine mandate for public school students 12 and older who are attending class in person starting Nov. 21. New York City has introduced a vaccine mandate for teachers and staff, but it has yet to take effect because of legal challenges. On Sept. 27, a federal appeals panel reversed a decision that temporarily paused that mandate.
Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get vaccinated. Mandates for health care workers in California and New York State appear to have compelled thousands of holdouts to receive shots.
New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations. City education staff and hospital workers must also get a vaccine.
At the federal level. On Sept. 9,President Biden announced a vaccine mandate for the vast majority of federal workers. This mandate will apply to employees of the executive branch, including the White House and all federal agencies and members of the armed services.
In the private sector. Mr. Biden has mandated that all companies with more than 100 workers require vaccination or weekly testing, helping propel new corporate vaccination policies. Some companies, like United Airlines and Tyson Foods, had mandates in place before Mr. Biden’s announcement.
Margaret Applegate, 57, a 29-year United employee who works as a services representative in the United Club at San Francisco International Airport, helps illustrate why.
Ms. Applegate normally does not hesitate to get vaccines, noting that her late father was a doctor and that her daughter does research in nutritional science.
Her daughter urged her to get vaccinated, but she remained deeply ambivalent. Friends and co-workers “were feeding me stories about horrible things happening to people with the vaccine,” she said. She worried about the relatively new technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and whether her heart condition could pose complications, though her cardiologist assured her it wouldn’t.
six employees sued United, arguing that its plans to put exempt employees on temporary leave — unpaid in many circumstances — are discriminatory. United has delayed that plan for at least a few weeks as it fights the suit.
Still, United’s vaccination rate has continued to improve. There was another rush before the deadline to receive the pay incentive and one more before the final Sept. 27 deadline. Toward the end of September, the company said 593 people had failed to comply. By Friday, the number had dropped below 240.
“I did not appreciate the intensity of support for a vaccine mandate that existed, because you hear that loud anti-vax voice a lot more than you hear the people that want it,” Mr. Kirby said. “But there are more of them. And they’re just as intense.”
The top wage for a Ford assembly line worker represented by the United Auto Workers is $32 an hour under a contract the company and union reached in 2019. Unionized workers at parts factories typically make less than those assembling cars.
Other big automakers are also pouring billions into battery and electric car plants. G.M., which said this year that it aimed to end production of internal-combustion vehicles by 2035, plans to build four battery plants in the United States over the next few years. Ford expects electric models to make up 40 percent of its production by 2030.
Even companies that have resisted electric cars have been changing their tune. Toyota Motor, in a sudden shift in strategy, said this month that it planned to spend billions of dollars over the next decade to build battery factories and hoped to sell two million electric cars a year by the end of the decade. Previously, Toyota planned to focus on making hybrid cars and trucks and expressed doubts that fully electric vehicles would take off.
Several other automakers, including Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Hyundai and Stellantis, which was formed by the merger of Fiat Chrysler and France’s Peugeot, are also investing billions of dollars to produce electric vehicles.
“All these companies are building battery plants because you have to have your own production if you’re going to make E.V.s in high volume,” said Mike Ramsey, a Gartner analyst. “The fact they are spending billions of dollars means they’re saying: ‘There’s no turning back. We’re really going to do this.’”
But Mr. Ramsey said it was not clear how quickly consumers would embrace electric vehicles, which are still more expensive than conventional cars and trucks even after federal and state incentives. Charging stations will also have to expand significantly as more electric models hit the road.
“There’s grounds to have real concerns about where demand will actually be,” Mr. Ramsey said.
Ford’s new truck plant and battery factory in Tennessee will be in Stanton, about 50 miles northeast of Memphis. To be called Blue Oval City, the campus will cover six square miles, substantially larger than the Ford Rouge plant that Henry Ford built in the Detroit area a century ago. The Tennessee campus is expected to employ 6,000 people and will house suppliers and a battery recycling operation as well as the truck and battery factories. Ford and SK Innovation will invest $5.6 billion at the site.
Some groups have found being productive particularly challenging during the pandemic. Half of parents working from home with children under 18, and nearly 40 percent of all remote workers ages 18 to 49, said it had been difficult for them to be able to get their work done without interruptions, according to the Pew Research Center. Parents were also more likely than those without children to say they had difficulty meeting deadlines and completing projects on time while working at home.
It is possible that people who are working from home — a relatively small percentage of workers compared to those who cannot do their jobs remotely — also have a false sense of how much they are working. In effect, people who are working at home may be using the wrong denominator when calculating the portion of their time they spend doing work, Mr. Syverson, the University of Chicago economist, said. That could make them feel as if they are working less when they are really working the same amount. (This may not be the case for those working remotely in jobs where their output can be more quantified easily, such as sales representatives.)
“I think there is something to the fact that a lot of workers who work at home are never sort of on the clock versus off the clock,” he said. “Rather than dividing a day’s work by eight hours in the office, they divide the day’s work by the 16 hours they are awake.”
As employers continue trying to figure out how to engage their employees and entice them back to empty offices, how to get the most from their work force has become a management puzzle with wide-ranging economic implications. Already, some have announced plans to give employees more flexibility — a nod to the idea that total output and how people feel are intertwined. Twitter said that employees who are able to do their jobs remotely could work from home forever.
Brigid Schulte, the director of the Better Life Lab at New America and the author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time,” said American culture has long believed that working longer means working harder and being more productive, despite the flaws in that way of thinking. She noted the idea that there is a “productivity cliff” — workers are only productive for a certain number of hours, after which their productivity declines and they may begin making mistakes.
“We’ve long had this really erroneous connection between long work must mean hard work and productivity, and it never has,” she said.
Productivity may also no longer be the be-all end-all it once was.
The pandemic has prompted a collective awakening, borne from a constant and immediate fear of contagion and death, over cultural priorities. For many people, especially the percentage of workers who remained employed and are able to work remotely, personal productivity — at least in the sense that it means producing the most at work, in the most number of hours — is no longer necessarily even the goal.
But if you want a small-business loan? There, the government’s definition is far more expansive. The Small Business Administration, which orchestrated the popular Paycheck Protection Program, generally considers any company with fewer than 500 employees a “small” one. Unless you’re in one of dozens of industries with exceptions, which are detailed in a 49-page document that can seem almost whimsical in its divisions. A company that mines gold ore counts as small if it has up to 1,500 employees, but the limit falls to 750 for iron miners and just 250 for those that extract silver.
Business & Economy
One thing about tiny companies is clear: They vastly outnumber their bigger brethren. The government estimates that there are nearly 32 million small businesses in America. Most have no employees beyond the owner. Their ranks include practitioners of nearly every profession — solo lawyers and accountants, Uber drivers, tutors, gig-working delivery cyclists, artists and writers and musicians and millions of salaried workers with side hustles.
Weed out those businesses and you’re left with six million employer firms, each with a payroll ranging from a handful of people to a few hundred. Only 20,000 companies in the country, according to data from the Census Bureau, are truly large businesses, with 500 or more employees.
To entrepreneurs in that squishy middle, the line between being a little business and a big one can feel pretty fuzzy. Twenty years ago, Franz Spielvogel joined Laughing Planet, which was at the time a single-location fast-casual cafe in Portland, Ore. It was a hit, so he and his business partner opened another Laughing Planet. Then another. Today, Mr. Spielvogel runs 15 locations in three states, with 224 workers.
Mr. Spielvogel said his mini-chain feels like a collection of neighborhood spots, which he likes. “We’re not Sweetgreen,” he said. “We’re not saying, ‘Let’s do 100 stores in the next six months.’ That’s not our mission.”
Being a midsize company can have some pain points, like having a limited legal and human resources infrastructure to handle the thicket of regulations that come with employing hundreds of people. But Mr. Spielvogel enjoys running a company small enough that it is able to preserve that first shop’s ethos and corporate culture. He’s unfazed — and honestly somewhat relieved, he said — by the new vaccination-or-testing mandate. He has been trying to coax his staff to get vaccinated by offering paid time off for each shot, and he hopes a mandate will convince his last few holdouts.
Even some teeny companies are eager to embrace it. Aaron Seyedian, the founder of Well-Paid Maids in Washington, said he wished the mandate extended to companies like his, which has 17 people.
Postponing gives the workers who are responding to new requirements sufficient time to become fully vaccinated. And it gives companies more time to set up the logistics that accompany vaccination mandates, such as processes for tracking vaccination status and, soon, who has received a booster.
“Within a company, a C.E.O. can say: ‘Our company, our culture, our business. We need to be together, we need to be in the office, this is the date,’” said Mary Kay O’Neill, a senior health consultant at Mercer Consulting Group. “And then our friends in H.R. are like, ‘How are we going to do that?’”
For some organizations, negotiations with unions are also a factor.A spokeswoman for NPR, which has not set a date for returning to the office, said the public radio network was working “with key stakeholders, including our unions, to evaluate the best approaches to keeping our staff safe and maintaining our operations.”
With new logistics around vaccine mandates, continued uncertainty around variants, and increasingly vocal employee demands, some companies, including The New York Times and American Airlines, have opted out of setting return dates.
The agility of technology companies, alongside industries like consulting and media, is in many ways unique. CVS Health is still eyeing a fall return, albeit with a degree of flexibility worked in. And many employees never went home at all — with a good portion of workers at companies like General Motors, Ford Motor and Chevron having worked on-site throughout most of the pandemic.
Many companies that did send employees home remain eager to bring them back. The longer workers stay out of the office, the harder it may be to cajole their return. And real estate costs are difficult to justify if offices are left empty.
In finance, which traditionally puts a priority on in-person apprenticeship and hustling, the prominent firms have made being in the office a recruiting tool. Goldman Sachs brought back its employees in June and JPMorgan Chase in July. The rise of the Delta variant didn’t slow those plans down, but it did seemingly expedite measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Goldman said last month that it would require anyone who entered its U.S. offices, including clients, to be fully vaccinated.
Disappointing August jobs numbers intensified the economic uncertainty caused by the Delta variant, putting pressure on the Federal Reserve as it considers when to reduce its policy support and on the White House as it tries to get more Americans vaccinated.
Fed officials and President Biden had been looking for continued improvement in the job market, but the Labor Department reported on Friday that employers added just 235,000 jobs in August — far fewer than projected and a sign that the ongoing coronavirus surge may be slowing hiring.
“There’s no question that the Delta variant is why today’s job report isn’t stronger,” Mr. Biden said in remarks at the White House. “I know people were looking, and I was hoping, for a higher number.”
A one-month slowdown is probably not enough to upend the Fed’s policy plans, but it does inject a dose of caution. It also will ramp up scrutiny of upcoming data as the central bank debates when to take its first steps toward a more normal policy setting by slowing purchases of government-backed bonds.
speech last week that as of the central bank’s July meeting, he and most of his colleagues thought they could start reducing the pace of asset purchases this year if the economy performed as they expected.
sharp pullback in hotel and restaurant hiring, which tends to be particularly sensitive to virus outbreaks. The participation rate, a closely watched metric that gauges what share of the population is working or looking, stagnated.
Daily Business Briefing
But there were other signs that underlying demand for workers remained strong. Wages continued to rise briskly, suggesting that employers were still paying up to lure people into work. Over the last three months, job gains have averaged 750,000, which is a strong showing. And the unemployment rate continued to decline in spite of the weakness in August, slipping to 5.2 percent.
4.2 percent in the year through July — well above the 2 percent average that officials aim to achieve over time.
Officials widely expect those price gains to slow as the economy returns to normal and supply chain snarls clear up. But they are monitoring consumer inflation expectations and wages keenly: Prices could keep going up quickly if shoppers begin to accept higher prices and workers come to demand more pay.
That’s why robust wage gains in the August report stuck out to some economists. Average hourly earnings climbed by 0.6 percent from July to August, more than the 0.3 percent economists in a Bloomberg survey had forecast. Over the past year, they were up 4.3 percent, exceeding the expected 3.9 percent.
The fresh data put the Fed “in an uncomfortable position — with the slowdown in the real economy and employment growth accompanied by signs of even more upward pressure on wages and prices,” wrote Paul Ashworth, the chief North America economist at Capital Economics.
referred to that consideration in a footnote to last week’s speech.
“Today we see little evidence of wage increases that might threaten excessive inflation,” he said.
Plus, it is unclear whether pay gains will remain robust as workers return. While it is hard to gauge how much enhanced unemployment benefits discouraged workers from taking jobs, and early evidence suggests that the effect was limited, a few companies have signaled that labor supply has been improving as they sunset.
Other trends — the end of summer and the resumption of in-person school and day care — could allow parents who have been on the sidelines to return to the job search, though that might be foiled if Delta keeps students at home.
“There’s still so much disruption, it’s hard for businesses and workers to make plans and move forward when you don’t know what’s coming around the next bend,” said Julia Coronado, the founder of MacroPolicy Perspectives, adding that this is a moment of “delicate transition.”
In 2010, Accenture scored an accounting contract with Facebook. By 2012, that had expanded to include a deal for moderating content, particularly outside the United States.
That year, Facebook sent employees to Manila and Warsaw to train Accenture workers to sort through posts, two former Facebook employees involved with the trip said. Accenture’s workers were taught to use a Facebook software system and the platform’s guidelines for leaving content up, taking it down or escalating it for review.
What started as a few dozen Accenture moderators grew rapidly.
By 2015, Accenture’s office in the San Francisco Bay Area had set up a team, code-named Honey Badger, just for Facebook’s needs, former employees said. Accenture went from providing about 300 workers in 2015 to about 3,000 in 2016. They are a mix of full-time employees and contractors, depending on the location and task.
The firm soon parlayed its work with Facebook into moderation contracts with YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest and others, executives said. (The digital content moderation industry is projected to reach $8.8 billion next year, according to Everest Group, roughly double the 2020 total.) Facebook also gave Accenture contracts in areas like checking for fake or duplicate user accounts and monitoring celebrity and brand accounts to ensure they were not flooded with abuse.
After federal authorities discovered in 2016 that Russian operatives had used Facebook to spread divisive posts to American voters for the presidential election, the company ramped up the number of moderators. It said it would hire more than 3,000 people — on top of the 4,500 it already had — to police the platform.
“If we’re going to build a safe community, we need to respond quickly,” Mr. Zuckerberg said in a 2017 post.
The next year, Facebook hired Arun Chandra, a former Hewlett Packard Enterprise executive, as vice president of scaled operations to help oversee the relationship with Accenture and others. His division is overseen by Ms. Sandberg.
Andrea Jones hadn’t yet settled on a date to retire from her customer service job at United Airlines when Newark airport started looking like a ghost town in March 2020. After 28 years with the carrier, she still loved her work. But by the end of that month, she had hung up her blue uniform for the last time. She is still struggling with a sense of loss.
“I wasn’t at all ready to leave,” she said. “It hit me right between the eyes.”
Ms. Jones, 68, of East Windsor, N.J., retired to protect the health of her husband, George, who has multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. Fortunately, the Joneses had a nest egg, and United offered a retirement package that enabled her to keep their health insurance.
Patricia Scott has not been so lucky. Ms. Scott, a special-education teacher in Stockton, Calif., retired in January to preserve her own health. A grandmother of 10, she survived breast cancer in 2016; her oncologist told her she couldn’t risk catching Covid-19 by returning to the classroom. Now, at age 66, she is on financial quicksand. “My income is half what it was,” she said. She is single and in debt. “I’m stressed, I’m depressed and I’m terrified.”
For many of the nearly three million workers ages 55 to 70 who have left their jobs since March 2020, retiring during the pandemic has inflicted two traumas. Like Ms. Jones and Ms. Scott, most felt they were forced out of work before they wanted to go, said Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics and policy analysis at the New School for Social Research. Among that subset, the majority, like Ms. Scott, were financially unprepared, Ms. Ghilarducci said.
research from the New School, far more older workers retired during the pandemic than during other recessions. After the 2008 financial crisis, for example, 1.9 million older workers left the labor force in the first three months of the recession. In the first three months of the pandemic last year, 2.9 million left the work force. The latest data shows that 1.7 million of the newer wave of retirees left despite financial uncertainty, Ms. Ghilarducci said.
Their departures generally were not a bid for a few extra years of bird-watching. “A lot of people were pushed out of their jobs,” Ms. Ghilarducci said; she attributed that push partly to age discrimination. “It used to be that employers would let the ones they just hired go first in a recession, but this time older people who have been in their jobs the longest have been hit hardest.”
Lack of enforcement of anti-discrimination laws was a factor, she said. So was what some employers saw as a rare opportunity created by the pandemic to get rid of older workers, who are perceived to be less productive and more expensive.
Regardless of the reason, the new army of reluctant retirees, disproportionately made up of Black workers and those who lack a college degree, according to June data from the New School, is in trouble. One key reason: Debt rates among Americans 65 and older are the highest they’ve ever been, Ms. Ghilarducci said. And they are likely to rise as more people are forced to draw down their assets to make ends meet. Collecting Social Security earlier than anticipated will add to their vulnerability, since claiming earlier will permanently reduce their benefits.
Even for people with a financial safety net, the hurdles can be significant. “There’s a lot of stress that comes with having retirement forced on you,” said Malcolm Ethridge, a financial adviser in Washington who has several newly out-of-work older clients. “It takes time to get past the disruption.”
Jovan Johnson, a certified financial planner in Atlanta, said Ms. Scott and others in her situation should start looking for a pro bono financial adviser who can help make sense of their money. “There are a lot of us out there who will help people out for free during a crisis,” he said. He recommends searching sites like the XY Planning Network.
The primary benefit of sitting down with a professional may be relief from panic, he said. But the 15 new retirees who have contacted him for pro bono help since the pandemic started, among them nurses and teachers, have also gained a better understanding of how to manage limited funds. “Everybody deserves to have a plan,” he said.
Pen and Brush after 23 years as executive director, the stress started last year, when she contracted Covid-19 and spent several weeks in an intensive care unit. She was not psychologically ready to retire, but because she has still not fully recovered, she felt she had to. “I was one of those people who was going to have to be wheeled out of there, I loved it so much,” she said.
Now she is adjusting to what she said was a more limited routine. Sunday nights and Mondays flummox her the most. “It’s like when you have that dream where you have a final exam and you’ve never been to class, or you forget your locker combination. I keep thinking, I have to go to work.” Instead, she takes walks with her husband, Wallace Munro, a retired actor, and visits the grocery store more than she thought she would ever want to.
“It’s something to do,” she said. “You have to restructure your life when something like this happens to you. It’s so easy to get depressed.”
Managing money in a sudden retirement
Mr. Johnson, the financial planner, offered tips on juggling your income and expenses when you’re thrust into joblessness with little warning.
Make sure that you do not have any old pension or 401(k) money out there from previous employers. People who have rolled over retirement accounts from previous employers often forget about them.
Don’t feel guilty for taking Social Security early — especially if you have no other option. You can begin claiming your benefits as early as age 62. However, the downside to claiming before your full retirement age (you can look it up on the Social Security website) is that your total monthly payments will be permanently reduced. If your income is below a certain threshold, your full Social Security payments might be tax-free.
Use Social Security payments for your nondiscretionary, fixed expenses and retirement assets for discretionary expenses, such as travel and entertainment.
Bridge the gap to Medicare, because the age of eligibility is 65. Consider plans under the Affordable Care Act. Typically, if your income is low enough, you may receive premium tax credits and other benefits if you choose a plan on the marketplace.
If Social Security and retirement savings cannot sustain your lifestyle, it’s time to consider Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income and similar programs.