Hawaii’s jobless seniors forced to tap Social Security early
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
Older Hawai'i workers who have lost jobs in the recession are exhausting unemployment benefits, spending down their nest eggs and turning to Social Security early in a trend that could threaten their long-term financial security and shows how tough the job market is for seniors.
New Social Security figures show that the number of Hawai'i residents who signed up for early retirement last year — in many cases after being unable to find new jobs — was up 36 percent from 2005. Meanwhile, state figures show 22 percent of all claimants for unemployment benefits are over 55.
Barbara Kim Stanton, state director of AARP Hawai'i, said older workers are being hit particularly hard in the recession and are struggling to compete with younger workers for fewer jobs. She said the downturn is forcing many to make tough choices, such as opting to draw Social Security early, which means they'll get smaller monthly checks, reduced by about 25 percent.
"They're compromising their retirement," Stanton said.
The financial pressures on older workers could have widespread implications for the graying population of baby boomers who are living longer than their parents and in some cases are ill-prepared for retirement because they didn't save enough or their savings shrunk in the financial meltdown.
Advocates say seniors nationwide are facing the same economic pressures and that many have started drawing early retirement to stay afloat.
They also say the situation in Hawai'i could become especially acute, because seniors make up a larger percentage of the state's population. About 20 percent of the state's population is over 60.
A DESPERATE CHOICE
Last year, some 9,612 Hawai'i residents filed for early retirement benefits, according to Social Security figures. That's up about 15 percent from 2008, when 8,343 filed, and up 36 percent from 2005.
Statewide, in 2008, some 154,183 retired workers were getting Social Security benefits.
Early retirement claims are also up nationally, experts said. There are about 75 million baby boomers nationwide, born between 1946 and 1964. Boomers can start drawing early retirement under Social Security at 62.
"There's (seniors) losing their jobs. If they are at retirement age, they're forced to take early retirement," said Jane Yamamoto-Burigsay, of the Social Security Administration office in Hawai'i. "Some of them have no choice. It's a source of income for them, rather than having no income at all."
Meanwhile, state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations statistics show that of the nearly 19,500 who filed for unemployment benefits last year, 3,939 — about 20 percent — were 55 or over.
Advocates say that seniors may not always be first on the layoff list.
But if they are laid off, they're finding themselves struggling — more than their younger counterparts — to find new jobs. At a time when jobs are scarce, advocates and seniors say, employers are sometimes hesitant to train someone who could retire soon. Many jobs may also require technical or computer skills that seniors may not have.
Martha Loezius, 71, said she has run into just those sorts of barriers since she was laid off in September from Bank of Hawaii. She has applied for positions that are well below her skill level and has told employers she's willing to make much less than the $68,000 a year she was earning.
But Loezius said if she gets a callback at all, it's to tell her she's over-qualified.
"They can't come out and say that you're too old," she said.
Loezius said she hadn't planned to retire for at least a few more years. Her husband is six years younger than her, and the two were hoping to retire about the same time. But now, Loezius has pretty much accepted that she won't find another job. She and her husband have cut their expenses because of the job loss, and Loezius said she plans to start drawing Social Security this year if she can't find something before her unemployment benefits run out.
"It's really changed my life," she said.
Anticipating the wave of older workers searching for jobs, the Kupuna Education Center at Kapi'olani Community College started a class in the spring to teach baby boomers how to market themselves in a changing job market and even how to start an "encore career" in their 50s and 60s.
HOPE IN 5 YEARS?
Toni Hathaway, education coordinator at the center, said the downturn has pushed lots of baby boomers into retirement before they were ready or has meant layoffs for people who have been doing the same job for their whole lives. Many of them, she said, don't have updated resumes or cover letters, and they probably aren't up on all the latest technologies.
But, she said, there are ways older workers can set themselves apart: They can highlight their experience, their work ethic and the fact that they're reliable. She also thinks that though older workers may be struggling now, they'll be in demand when the economy bounces back — in five years or so.
"Once the economy gets under way, we're not going to have enough younger workers," she said.
Steven Cook, a vocational rehabilitation counselor, teaches the KCC class with his wife, Barbara, a gerontologist. He said the spring class attracted mostly older workers who had been laid off and were actively seeking work. The key for older workers, he added, is figuring out what they want to do, and then trying to determine how they can market "transferable skills" they have or learn new ones.
Cook also said older workers are ideal mentors and dependable workers.
"Ageism is alive and well in the workplace. When an employer hires, they tend to want to go with the younger workers because they believe they can get more production out of them over a lifetime," he said. "But this is shifting because of older workers' experience, their work ethic and their responsibility level."