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Retirements cut ranks of scarce frontline workers

After decades of police work, the idea of retiring started sounding good to Craig Long when COVID-19 struck suburban Suffern, New York, in March 2020. He was in his early 60s.

As a veteran detective, Long was assigned in the pandemic’s early days to help investigate the deaths of people who had died at home from the fast-spreading COVID-19. Many were about his age.

“I was just going from death to death to death to death,” Long said. Sometimes he was at a home for hours as paramedics debated what to do with the body, given the uncertainty at that time over how the disease spread.

Like many older frontline workers, he decided last year to collect his pension and do something safer, concentrating on his part-time work as historian for Rockland County, New York. “I know I’m not going to get COVID from my dusty old books,” said Long, now 63.

Workers who have a lot of contact with the public—such as police officers, nurses, school bus drivers and retail store workers—retired and left the workforce in sharply higher numbers last year compared with 2019, before the pandemic, according to a Stateline analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

A shortage of frontline workers has vexed states and cities throughout the pandemic.

For police officers, the number of retirements grew faster than resignations, and both played a role in pandemic staffing shortages, according to a May survey of police chiefs. Shortages were particularly severe in large cities, many of which had been grappling with violent crime waves.

As COVID-19 became the leading cause of death for police officers, police departments from New England to California and Florida reported officer shortages last year. In Maryland, Baltimore County said that a lack of officers, partly because of retirements, was putting residents at risk.

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Nurse shortages also have hurt efforts to fight the pandemic. At one point last fall, dozens of Detroit hospital beds were closed for lack of nursing help, and school nurses also were in short supply. Military nurses were summoned to fill the breach in Dearborn, Michigan, and Washington state last month called in the National Guard to work in support roles at understaffed hospitals.

Also last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona described the lack of school bus drivers as “a roadblock to keeping kids in schools.”  

Retirements account for a large chunk of the labor shortage, according to research by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank published in October. There were about 2.4 million unexpected retirements since the beginning of the pandemic, more than half of the 4.2 million people who left the workforce and hadn't returned, the report found.

As a policy matter, states and cities should think about requirements that would make public-facing jobs safer so older people feel comfortable returning to them, at least part time, said Monique Morrisey, an economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute specializing in retirement security. A healthier generation of older workers has become a mainstay of the workforce in recent years.

She mentioned the federal vaccine mandate for large employers that was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, noting that some states such as California are moving ahead on their own with mandates for extended paid leave so workers sick with COVID-19 can stay home. At least 14 states and some cities and counties have mandated pandemic-related workplace safety rules, including Philadelphia’s law protecting employees who raise COVID-19 safety concerns.

“As the pandemic drags on, we would be wise to add more protections for workers, assuring people they will be protected if they come back to work, that would be the single most important thing we can do,” Morrisey said.

Workplace safety regulations “could both prevent illness and encourage workers who have left the workplace to return,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist at George Washington University and a former assistant secretary of labor in the Obama administration. In a January op-ed, he called for the federal government to keep trying to implement national safety rules after the Supreme Court setback.

The pandemic has forced nurses to work long hours under chaotic conditions. Many who were used to caring for patients undergoing routine procedures were transferred to high-risk emergency room work.

“I am hearing of nurses who have been considering retiring deciding to do so in light of the pandemic,” said Jeanine Santelli, director of the New York chapter of the American Nurses Association.

“The reasons seem to be the physical, mental and emotional toll and the abusive behavior of patients and families. Nurses are familiar with heading into dangerous situations and working under extreme conditions in a crisis, but this crisis has lasted two years,” she said.

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Before the pandemic, Steve Huff left a nursing job in Virginia at age 61 when he had to undergo a kidney transplant. He decided to retire rather than go back after he heard about the chaos the pandemic was causing in hospitals. “I loved nursing but have never considered going back. Nurses are being worked to death.”

Pete Ramírez retired from his job managing a large Tucson, Arizona, grocery store in December. COVID-19 forced the decision earlier than planned—he’s only 62 and has to pay for expensive private insurance until Medicare kicks in at age 65.

“As things kept progressing, I kept noticing employees getting sick as well as the public getting sick,” Ramírez said. “I mostly thought about my parents. They’re both 91, and I’m their primary caregiver.”

According to an analysis of census microdata from the Current Population Survey (provided by the University of Minnesota), 14,500 nurses had recently retired as of March 2021, an increase of 140% over that figure in March 2019. The figure represents people who worked in the profession the past year but said they were now retired and not looking for work.

There were similar spikes for retail workers, hairdressers, school bus drivers, corrections officers, receptionists and even some factory workers.

Most of the pandemic retirees were leaving part-time jobs and might return if they were sure the jobs were safe, experts say.

“Public contact and part-time status are the two biggest factors in driving pandemic retirements,” said Owen Davis, a research associate at the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at The New School in New York City. Davis analyzed retirements in a December working paper.

His paper concluded that the pandemic “dealt an unprecedented shock to older workers and led to a sharp increase in the share of U.S. adults who are retired.” The part-time status of many workers may help explain the fact that fewer people applied for Social Security benefits in the pandemic, despite the bump in people saying they’re retired.

Many were working part time, experts say, in retail or driving school buses to supplement their Social Security or may be waiting until later to apply to get better checks.

School bus driver retirements more than tripled to about 8,150 last year. Older drivers have left because the work is no longer dependable as schools shift in and out of remote learning, and it’s riskier for health reasons, said Corey Muirhead, vice president of a school bus service based in Queens, New York.

“The school bus industry used to have a large percentage of retirees that wanted to get out of their homes and work for a few hours,” Muirhead said.

“That has completely changed. They don’t feel safe transporting 50-plus kids a day. Also, why work in an industry that right now has a constant threat of being shut down?”

Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

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Sgt. Kaden D. Pitt|U.S. Army photo

Army  Capt. Jason Webb, right,  and Army Capt. Corrine Brown, left, critical care nurses with the 627th Hospital Center, prepare to move a COVID-19 positive patient. The National Guard has be called in to help with hospital staffing shortages in many states. Retirements of frontline workers such as nurses have added to shortages around the country.