Many seniors working through the pandemic can't afford to retire

Across the Bay Area, widespread vaccination among older adults means that many people can safely return to their lives and enjoy retirement. Eating out, traveling and spending time with loved ones is now safe and within reach. 

But the reality for many retirement-age adults is actually much more brutal—seniors who are too poor to retire have been working throughout the pandemic, often in service or home care jobs, which either felt or were potentially dangerous before vaccines were available. 

For these workers, especially those who have worked low wage jobs for decades, Social Security benefits that they paid into will not support rent, food and healthcare costs in the Bay Area. So they’ll keep working until it’s physically or logistically impossible.

This is the case for Susanne, age 66, who works as a home care assistant and lives in affordable housing in Oakland. She’s supporting her son through college, and pays $900 a month in rent.

"What I know is, if I don't work I have no money," Susanne said. "That's all I know."

She said she can’t afford to take any breaks from work, including to get a medically necessary surgery. 

"If I have the surgery, I stop working, but I need it," she said. 

California seniors are the poorest in the nation according to the supplemental poverty measure, said Patti Prunhuber, a senior attorney at Justice in Aging. 

Across the country, 9 percent of seniors live in poverty.

In California? 10 percent.

In the Bay Area, that number is much higher, at 14% based on the federal poverty level. Since the poverty level in San Francisco would reflect the exorbitant cost of living here, it’s much different than the federal level; thus the number of seniors living in poverty is actually much higher than 14%.

Prunhuber said that she has seen two trends for older workers during the pandemic: one, that many could not afford to stop working, even if they were a frontline worker. 

"And then on the other hand, we saw many seniors who were laid off or let go during the pandemic," Prunhuber said. "And, unlike previous periods of recession that have occurred, for the first time in nearly 50 years, people over the age of 55 had a higher rate of job loss than their younger peers."

She also noted that these workers are not being recalled at the same rate as their younger peers. This threat of job loss, when coupled with ageism, has created profoundly bleak and disconcerting job conditions for seniors working in low wage jobs during the pandemic.

So, what happens if a worker who has made $15 dollars for the past few decades wants the option to retire and collect social security?

Social security benefits have not kept pace with the cost of living in the Bay Area, said Laura Chiera, Executive Director of Legal Assistance to the Elderly. What results is a mass of seniors living paycheck to paycheck, and unable to foresee any future where they’re not working to survive.

"For seniors in San Francisco, the average Social Security benefit is $15,000 a year," Chiera said. "So we can already see that the average Social Security benefit isn't enough to pay for housing, food, medical care."

Mari, who is 72 and works as an assistant in an emergency room, said that she needs the money from her work to pay her bills, including rent. But absent family anywhere nearby—her husband, who she used to live with, is no longer alive—work also brings her a sense of community. 

When she does retire, she’ll have some amount of Social Security. But she thinks it won’t be enough to live comfortably in San Francisco.

"I would have to be creative and find income," she said of her eventual retirement. "...I would try to find something that I can do to generate income."

Mari said that she knows many people who work into their 80s in the city who do not qualify for Social Security.

"I know a lot of the people, they’re close to 80, and they're first generation Japanese-American," Mari, who was born in Japan and moved to the U.S. at age 10, said. "Only kind of job they had was doing housekeeping, a couple of times a week for family, they work until they were 80 years old."

Similarly, Susanne will have to find income to support herself outside of Social Security. She said she is used to squeezing to get by, but that doesn’t make it any easier. One of the most difficult things for her is putting food on the table.

"It's really sad," she said of her food security. She described eating the same, cheap foods repeatedly, and growing sick of them. "You know, sometimes we want to eat this one. But we have to think for the other things, like the bills, which is coming every month."

Caroline Hart is a writer and producer with KTVU. She covers inequality, the economy and more. She can be reached at