coronavirus

They Went Bust in the Great Recession. Now, in Their 80s, the Pandemic Took Their Jobs

Dan and Grace Porte
  • Dan and Grace Porte, who are in their mid-80s, lost their jobs at Target early in the Covid pandemic.
  • Unemployed seniors typically have more trouble finding new jobs than younger workers. That may present financial challenges. Dan and Grace supplemented Social Security with job income.
  • The couple, from Richmond, Virginia, had worked together for decades. Now, the recession's challenges have brought them even closer together.

Dan and Grace Porte worked together for decades.

In the 1970s, they started a paint and wallpaper business. Then, after the housing bubble burst in the Great Recession, the couple delivered cars for Enterprise. Five years later, they were fielding customer returns at Target.

But the pandemic brought that to an end. Now, in their mid-80s, the Portes are unemployed.

They're among thousands of older Americans pushed out of work since the spring. The Covid recession has sidelined many of them for long stretches — making it harder to get another job at an age that makes employers already be less inclined to hire them.

The Portes, who live in Richmond, Virginia, don't hold a grudge. In fact, losing their jobs likely saved their lives due to their heightened Covid risk, they said. And the ordeal has brought them closer together, even after 63 years of marriage.

But they'd like to work again, when they feel it's safe to do so. They miss their co-workers, the camaraderie, meeting new people, the exercise. Money has also been tight without the extra income.

"I enjoyed so much visiting the people in the store, doing the job we did and getting away from the house," Dan, 86, said.

"We'd still work if anyone would let us," he added. "When you get to this age, people don't look at you for work."

Long-term unemployment

Two million people over age 55 were unemployed in January, according to an analysis of federal data published by the AARP Public Policy Institute. They accounted for roughly 1 in 5 jobless Americans.

Like the Portes, many out-of-work seniors are "long-term unemployed," meaning they've been out of a job at least six months, a period of greater financial risk. Half of jobless workers over age 55 were long-term unemployed in January, compared with 35% of younger adults, according to AARP.

So far, Dan and Grace have been able to make ends meet with Social Security. But money is tight.

They relied on jobs at Target, where they worked four days a week, to supplement Social Security benefits. The retailer furloughed the couple in March but kept them on payroll, even upping their pay to $15 an hour, a $2 raise. In late April, they lost the jobs outright.  

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Unemployment aid helped for a while but ran out in September. They don't have retirement savings to fall back on, either — a broker put their nest egg in an investment that went bust in the 2008 financial crisis, costing them approximately $240,000.

"There it went," Grace, 85, said of the money. "I said, 'I think maybe we should get a job' when Dan asked what we should do."

Jobs galore

The duo have had an active — and colorful — job history.

Grace, born in 1935, grew up in rural Nebraska, "about 8 miles from nowhere," working in a post office and drug store in her youth. She and Dan met in Omaha, where he was stationed at an Air Force base, in their early 20s.

By then, Dan had already served in Tachikawa, Japan, on the outskirts of Tokyo, as a radar and radio technician during the Korean War. A star athlete, he played for the Red Devils baseball team, which won the Far East Air Force championship during his tenure. The squad even played the New York Yankees, at a time when legends like Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford were on the roster. (They lost 16-2.)

"Those guys were good," Dan, a pitcher and centerfielder, said. "They beat the hell out of us."

The Tachikawa Red Devils. Dan Porte is pictured in the first row, 2nd from the left.
Dan Porte
The Tachikawa Red Devils. Dan Porte is pictured in the first row, 2nd from the left.

He proposed to Grace on Christmas Day in 1957. They wed in April and he was discharged the next day, concluding eight years of service.

The couple returned to Baltimore, Dan's hometown, before relocating to Richmond in 1966 when Dan became an assistant division manager at RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company. He was sometimes tasked with going to colleges to hand out free cigarettes at lunch, a task he thoroughly disliked and which led to his departure.

The front page of the Tachikawa Air Base newspaper on Aug. 27, 1955.
Source: Dan Porte
The front page of the Tachikawa Air Base newspaper on Aug. 27, 1955.

The couple then started their own company, Proud Performance, after neighbors began soliciting their home-remodeling help. A few decades later, at Enterprise, the duo were delivering cars to various locations. Pickup trucks gave Grace some trouble due to her height — at 4'8" she had to sit on phone books to see the road.

At Target, the octogenarians, who re-stocked the shelves with returned items, were the oldest workers by a wide margin, they said.

"Our whole life has been exciting," she said. "It's been a lot of fun."

'It's tight'

The retailer had to eliminate their positions when customer returns began drying up.

Without part-time income, the couple has been getting by on around $1,700 a month in combined Social Security benefits. A third of it — around $570 — goes to a health plan to supplement their Medicare.

"It's tight," Grace said. "We're very frugal."

Many adults depend on wage income to cover gaps in their budget, an issue exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, according to Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation, a charitable arm of the advocacy group.

It's often harder to find a job after long unemployment spells, and those who find work generally do so at lower pay, according to labor economists. It's especially hard for older workers due to potential age discrimination, Ryerson said, or other factors like outdated job skills.

"Senior poverty, or the risk of it, is a problem that's so often hidden in plain sight," she said. "Longer lives will be poorer lives for far too many people."

Meanwhile, costs are rising faster for seniors than other age groups due to inflated prices for medical and other services often consumed by older individuals.

Unemployment benefits

The Portes collected unemployment benefits from May to September. They may be eligible for additional weeks of benefits from a $900 billion relief package signed by former President Donald Trump in December.

"The big help was the stimulus we got," Grace said of a $600-a-week boost in benefits offered by the CARES Act, which ended in July. "It didn't last long."

National data doesn't break out aid recipients by age, but state-level data is telling. In California, more than half of all the seniors in the state's labor force — about 617,000 people between 65 and 85 — have applied for unemployment benefits since mid-March, according to the California Policy Lab.

The only group with a larger share were 16- to 24-year-olds. Nearly two-thirds of their labor force applied for benefits during the pandemic. Young people tend to work in industries most impacted by the pandemic, like retail, hospitality and food services, according to Till von Wachter, an economist and director of the California Policy Lab.

By contrast, most seniors in the Golden State applied for benefits through the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, suggesting they have a larger share of small-business owners and that older individuals had been scared by heightened Covid risks in the workplace, von Wachter said.

Last week, Dan and Grace stopped by the local Target and their old manager asked if they wanted to come back to work. They were flattered but declined (for the time being) due to Covid risks.

For their part, the couple radiate optimism and positivity and are in some ways grateful for what's happened.

"All it does is bring us closer together," Dan said of their financial challenges. "We sit and talk, go over these things and try to figure out how to handle them."

"We actually still have stuff to talk about," Grace echoed.

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