“Everyone is telling us: Be safe,” said Guzman, who greets customers as they walk in and checks receipts as they leave the Jacksonville, Fla., store. “But it’s starting to get overwhelming — so many people everywhere and nothing to protect us.”
The number of retirement-age Americans working in retail has increased steadily since the 2008 recession as they look to make ends meet. Nearly one-quarter of retail workers are 55 or older, and 7 percent are over 65, according to Labor Department data, which means that the demographic most vulnerable to the coronavirus is increasingly on its front lines, selling groceries, medicine and other necessities to the crowds of shoppers who raise their risks for infection.
Although supermarkets across the country have implemented seniors-only hours and priority home delivery for their older customers, they have made few accommodations for their 4.4 million employees who are 55-plus. Many store employees say they don’t have access to protective gear like gloves or enough disinfectant to wipe down cash registers, leaving them with a harrowing choice: a steady paycheck or their health.
“The older we are, the more worried we are,” said Cyndi Murray, 63, a fitting-room attendant at a Walmart in Laurel, Md. She has asthma and says her children have begged her to stop working.
“They want me to stay home until this pandemic is over — and I’m like, I don’t know how long it will be,” said Murray, who makes $14.60 an hour and is a member of the workers’ advocacy group United for Respect. “How can I afford to live?”
Walmart is allowing employees to take unpaid time off if they feel uncomfortable at work, and is adding hand sanitizer dispensers, wipes and sneeze guards to its stores, spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said. It has also stopped requiring workers to check customer receipts at the door “to help with social distancing,” he said, and is offering as much as two weeks of paid leave for employees who test positive for the virus. With about 1.5 million employees, Walmart is the nation’s largest private employer.
American retailers have been actively recruiting baby boomers for years in the struggle to fill jobs at a time of historically low unemployment. Older adults, economists say, became a coveted demographic for many customer-facing jobs at supermarkets, department stores and pharmacies.
“In a very tight labor market — pre-virus, of course — employers had trouble attracting and retaining workers, so they were tapping groups they would not have traditionally turned to, including older workers,” said Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University and former chief economist for the Labor Department. “Retailers are looking for broad, general skills and reliable people who will show up for work every day. Older workers generally fit that bill nicely.”
Many of these older workers saw their retirement accounts bleed during the last recession, and “people who were preparing to retire in 2010, 2015, reran the arithmetic and realized that was no longer possible,” said Dante DeAntonio, an economist for Moody’s Analytics. “Many of them took part-time service-sector jobs that allowed them to ease into retirement.”
As a result, aging Americans remain in the workforce longer, and retired ones take on part-time work for extra cash. Overall labor force participation rates have been declining for every demographic except older workers, according to Pamela Loprest, a senior fellow and labor economist at the Urban Institute.
“A good percentage of older workers have no plans for retirement,” she said. “And retail jobs in particular have been readily available and accessible to them.”
After a career in nursing, Lois Kettner, 79, turned to part-time retail work to supplement her Social Security check. She rings up purchases for 12 hours a week at Trig’s, a local supermarket in Rhinelander, Wis., and has no intention of stopping.
“I’m not a cockeyed optimist but, so far, I feel calm,” she said. “As long as I remain asymptomatic and I feel well, I’ll keep going to work.”
She wipes down her cash register and washes her hands when she can. Other than that, she’s mostly living life as usual: going to Walmart for lightbulbs and denture adhesive, and stopping by McDonald’s for coffee. She’d planned on getting a haircut last week until she found out the salon had shut down because it was considered a nonessential business.
Her grocery job, she said, allows her to live “more than a bare-bones life.” Plus, she says, there are utilities to pay.
“It’s not just me. There are a lot of people in the same situation as I am,” she said. “These are our golden years, but they’ve got a lot of tarnish on them these days.”
As the coronavirus outbreak worsens, grocery chains and pharmacies have announced plans to hire hundreds of thousands of new workers. Many also are adding incentives for existing employees: Safeway, BJ’s Wholesale Club and Amazon are temporarily raising wages by $2 an hour, while Kroger and Walmart are offering cash bonuses of as much as $300. Target has said it would offer vulnerable employees, including those who are 65 and older, up to 30 days of paid leave, though it did not provide specifics. (Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
But many older workers say those measures don’t go far enough in protecting them from a growing pandemic. The risk of hospitalization and death from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, climbs with age. Eighty-percent of the nation’s coronavirus deaths have been adults 65 and older, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Murray, the Walmart employee in Maryland, says she is not just worried for herself and her family. She also fears for her colleagues, who include a woman in her early 80s with diabetes and a 64-year-old with a kidney transplant. Both interact with hundreds of customers a day, she said.
After each shift, Murray goes straight to her first-floor bathroom to shower. She puts her clothes in the washing machine and disinfects her doorknobs, keys, purse and ID badge.
“It’s scary thinking you might bring this home and it give it to someone in your family,” she said. “I don’t think stores understand that their workers are afraid.”
Sydnee Marchese wants her father to stop working. At 65, he’s spent more than two decades unloading trucks and stocking shelves at Publix, a Florida-based supermarket chain. Now with the rush of panicked customers, he’s been working 12-hour shifts, she said, starting at 3 p.m. and coming home early in the morning five days a week. He deals with hundreds of customer a day, but doesn’t have a mask, gloves or the luxury of staying six feet away from colleagues and customers.
“Would he rather stay home and be safe? Absolutely,” said Marchese. “But then there are the bills. How do you decide: bills or your health?”
Publix, she says, handed out $50 gift cards to employees. But she wants the grocery chain to go further — allowing older workers to take unpaid leave until it’s safe for them to work again, while keeping their health insurance. Publix did not respond to a request for comment.
“Since the virus hit, my dad gets home at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 5 a.m.," she said. “He’s exhausted. How do we protect him? How do we protect our family?”
Guzman has been mulling the same questions. The Walmart worker called in sick a couple of times last week. When he went to work Sunday, he ran into a colleague in his 70s who had recently been in the hospital with pneumonia. “I saw him and I said, ‘You’re back?'” he recalled. Yes, his friend replied. He needed the money.
Guzman knows the feeling. He joined Walmart in November, a few months after retiring from his construction job. He’s been working since he was 10, selling snow cones in Havana, and has been a mason, fisherman and salt miner. “I was willing to do any kind of job, any dirty job, because I wanted to prosper,” he said. The Walmart position is a source of pride — just about everyone in the community knows him, Guzman said. The money helps too: He has two children in college.
“We have families to support,” he said. “But with the coronavirus, the more you see, the more you understand how important it is to stay home.”
A few days ago, he finally made his decision. On Wednesday, his day off, he stopped in to ask for two weeks of leave. He brought a doctor’s note saying that he should self-isolate for 14 days. “Mr. Guzman is in a high risk age group,” it said.
It was bittersweet, he says, but necessary.
“I’ve always been working, from the time I was a kid,” Guzman said. “My whole life I’ve always been thinking about other people. But this time, I had to think about myself.”