Retirement dream fades for senior US worker

Ms Debra Cole, 57, works as concierge at a condominium in Washington DC, earning less than US$20 (S$26) an hour, with no other benefits.
Ms Debra Cole, 57, works as concierge at a condominium in Washington DC, earning less than US$20 (S$26) an hour, with no other benefits.ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
Ms Debra Cole, 57, works as concierge at a condominium in Washington DC, earning less than US$20 (S$26) an hour, with no other benefits.
Ms Debra Cole, 57, works as concierge at a condominium in Washington DC, earning less than US$20 (S$26) an hour, with no other benefits.ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

WASHINGTON - Born in 1961, Washingtonian Debra Cole worked for 33 years at the American Council on Education (ACE).

She made her way up the ladder at the non-profit organisation to become senior programme manager before being laid off in 2013.

Ms Cole was divorced last year and does not have children. Today, the 57-year-old works as concierge at a condominium in Washington DC, earning less than US$20 (S$26) an hour, with no other benefits.

With her retirement savings eroded, she expects to have to work for the rest of her life.

"No one's ever ready for being laid off, whatever the circumstances; it was just mind-boggling," she told The Straits Times.

ACE gave her a severance package and training, and she looked for a new job while earning some cash from network marketing and driving for Uber and Lyft.

But it has been difficult to find a job which pays anywhere close to her US$70,000-a-year salary at ACE.

 

She is now earning less than half that amount and still has a mortgage to pay.

While she was between jobs she had to dip into her retirement savings, driving down the balance of her 403(b) retirement account, leaving her far short of the amount she will need when she retires. She has no other savings.

"I had to use some of my retirement money, because I was married and we had a home and a mortgage and we both had cars," she said.

"I had to make sacrifices. When I was working at ACE, I could shop, get my hair done, get my nails done, things like that. Now I have to be more focused on my needs instead of my wants. I cut back on shopping and eating out, things you take for granted when you have a higher salary."

As a diabetic, Ms Cole also needs health insurance. But even that is a problem.

"I am covered for health with Obamacare but things got so tight for me last year that I had to drop out, I couldn't afford the premium. Now I have it again," she said with a grin and two thumbs up.

"I need coverage. I am going to have to work a second job or get help from my family if it comes to it. I love the job I have but I know I need a job where I can get some benefits, even if it's just medical. I don't understand why this country can't get it together for people to get medical insurance like in Canada."

Ms Cole said she understands that a lot of companies are doing away with retirement plans.

Asked if she had enough to retire, she said: "I don't know. I don't think it will be sufficient. At this point, I can't retire. I have to keep working."