The coronavirus exacerbated Maine's labor shortage. Most of the people who have left the state's workforce since early 2020 were early retirees.
Brenda Chaimowitz lost her job in the early days of the pandemic and decided to retire early. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer
Second of five parts
Brenda Chaimowitz started working when she was a sophomore in high school and didn’t stop until April 2020, when she was laid off from her job as a manager at a business travel agency. Like so many others, Chaimowitz thought the furlough was a hiccup. After a few days or weeks, she’d be back in the office. A year later and still unemployed, Chaimowitz chose early retirement, joining thousands of older Maine workers in an exodus from the state’s labor force.
For more than a decade, business groups, employers, economists and policymakers in the nation’s oldest state agonized over a looming silver wave as the number of baby boomers retiring exceeded those entering the workforce.
The pandemic accelerated that trend. State economists estimate that two-thirds of the 20,000 or so workers who have dropped out of the labor force since March 2020 were early retirees.
“We’d had an aging workforce pre-pandemic. This was an issue we have been talking about for many years,” said Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman. “What the pandemic did was exacerbate the situation. Many workers who were still in the workforce but at retirement age decided to retire.”
‘A GOOD TIME TO RETIRE’
After fruitlessly applying for jobs and seeing nothing that paid as well as her old position, Chaimowitz decided to call it quits. At age 62, she went into early retirement.
“It eventually turned into, ‘Well, I guess this is a good time to retire. I can’t replace my income. I am not going back to work for $15 to $18 an hour.’ There was nothing that looked interesting,” Chaimowitz said.
Now she fills her days helping care for twin grandchildren and making up the time her old career took away from spending with her daughter.
Chaimowitz wasn’t planning to retire early. She thought she’d make it at least until her Social Security benefits kicked in. But COVID-19 made people reconsider their relationship to work and ask whether it was worth risking health and safety for a paycheck.
“It is a little early to retire, but when you start seeing people in their 60s dropping, it makes you rethink – maybe money isn’t everything,” Chaimowitz said.
Maine employers have braced for an oncoming surge of retirees for years. In 2020, the Maine Department of Labor predicted the state would lose 16,000 jobs by 2028, mostly as baby boomers aged out of the workforce.
An aging workforce led to fewer and fewer people involved in the state’s labor force. Maine’s workforce participation rate – the proportion of people employed compared to the labor force – has steadily fallen for years.
Then, starting in March 2020, it sank like a stone – from about 62 percent to 59 percent today. At the same time, the number of people out of the labor force because of retirement soared, from around 237,000 in 2019 to more than 267,000 two years later, according to a Maine Department of Labor analysis.
“In the last decade the retired population steadily increased as the large baby boom generation – aged 58 to 76 this year – advanced in age. During the pandemic the estimated number of retired people increased more sharply as many people appear to have retired earlier than their predecessors,” said Mark McInerney, head of Maine’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.
According to Federal Reserve research, retirees make up as much as half the workers who have left the national labor force since 2020.
“The pandemic-created disruption and other factors enabled people to retire early,” McInerney said.
Among those factors were healthy retirement accounts thanks to a booming stock market and skyrocketing home values. But retirees were also helped by federal and state stimulus money and enhanced unemployment payments.
Older Mainers’ elevated risk of illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19 may have persuaded some people to leave the workforce or kept them from returning.
For some older workers, the decision to retire wasn’t voluntary.
Lucie Tardif, 66, retired early during the pandemic after struggling to find employment. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer
“As difficult as it is not having anything to do, it is better than what I was going through trying to find a job,” said Lucie Tardif. “It was enormously stressful.”
The 66-year-old was laid off from her last full-time job in 2018. She took temp gigs afterward, but the pandemic put an end to that. Tardif said she spent most of 2020 applying for jobs without success. She put out 150 applications and got just three interviews, Tardif said.
Tardif believes that her age and algorithms that screen applications on online hiring platforms held her back. What jobs were available were low-paid service and retail positions she didn’t want. In December 2020, exhausted and frustrated, she called it quits, years before she expected to stop working.
“I had hoped to wait until I was 70 until I would retire,” she said. “For many years I thought I would work until I died, work is probably what would kill me.”
Employers may have to think twice before selecting applicants based on age. Maine’s median age of 44.8, according to the 2020 U.S. census, is the oldest in the United States, and the state has been aging faster than the nation as a whole.
In the first six months of the year, around 7,000 people attended hiring events and job fairs sponsored by the Maine Department of Labor. The average age of attendees was 55 years old.
Around 2010, the number of deaths in Maine started outpacing births, according to state records. Despite recent migration to the state from asylum seekers and Americans attracted to the quality of life, Maine’s population has barely grown in the last decade.
Meanwhile, the state’s workforce has gotten grayer. Three decades ago, the largest segment of the state population consisted of those in prime working ages, about 25 to 44, according to the Maine Department of Labor. In 2019, people at or near retirement age – 55 to 74 – represented the largest population segment.
It is unsurprising that early retirement during the pandemic had an outsized impact on Maine, said Joseph Fuller, a professor at Harvard University Business School. The “great retirement,” however, was provoked by unique circumstances that caused many people to reconsider what work meant to them.
“One thing that clearly has happened is that this has caused a significant number of people to have an opportunity or be motived to rethink the role of work in their life,” Fuller said. “That has manifested in the significant and unprecedented increase in the early retirement rate.”
‘TONS OF JOBS OUT THERE’
Whether early retirement sticks for some people may depend on what happens to the economy broadly. Soaring inflation, shaky financial markets and price spikes for food, fuel and other essentials might bring people out of retirement just as quickly as they went in.
As of March this year, the “unretirement” rate for workers who left their jobs two years prior was more than 3 percent, meaning more than 1.5 million U.S. workers who had retired returned to a job, according to an April analysis by the job site Indeed.
Rita Coutu left her job at a Portland-area insurance company last year, after three decades in the industry. Pressure to return to the office and her wariness of COVID-19 convinced Coutu to call it quits a few years before she’d planned.
“If you love your job you have every reason to hang onto it,” said Coutu, 65. “I was approaching retirement age – I could wing it. I would have stayed if it had not been for COVID.”
Coutu guesses the Portland home she owns has doubled or tripled in value since she bought it 15 years ago. But a recent market downturn hit her retirement account and inflation drove up prices on everything. Come this fall, Coutu expects to find a part-time job, bagging groceries or working retail to help make ends meet.
“I am not looking for another career – I’m looking for a job,” Coutu said. “I think there are tons of jobs out there. I think I would get hired in a second.”
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