TULSA — Tom Coomer has retired twice: once when he was 65, and then several years ago. Each time he realized that with just a Social Security check, “You can hardly make it these days.”
Tom Coomer, 79, outside of the Walmart where he works five days a week in Wagoner, Okla, on Nov. 16. Coomer used to work at the McDonnell Douglas plant in Tulsa before it closed in 1994. He and many of his co-workers could never replace their lost pension benefits and face financial struggles in their old age. (Nick Oxford for The Washington Post)
So here he is at 79, working full-time at Walmart. During each eight-hour shift, he stands at the store entrance greeting customers, telling a joke and fetching a “buggy.” Or he is stationed at the exit, checking receipts and the shoppers that trip the theft alarm.
“As long as I sit down for about 10 minutes every hour or two, I’m fine,” he said during a break. Diagnosed with spinal stenosis in his back, he recently forwarded a doctor’s note to managers. “They got me a stool.”
Years ago, Coomer and his co-workers at the Tulsa plant of McDonnell Douglas, the famed airplane maker, were enrolled in the company pension, but in 1994, with an eye toward cutting retirement costs, the company closed the plant. Now, The Washington Post found in a review of those 998 workers, that even though most of them found new jobs, they could never replace their lost pension benefits and many are facing financial struggles in their old age: 1 in 7 has in their retirement years filed for bankruptcy, faced liens for delinquent bills, or both, according to public records.
Those affected are buried by debts incurred for credit cards, used cars, health care and sometimes, the college educations of their children.
Some have lost their homes.
And for many of them, even as they reach beyond 70, real retirement is elusive. Although they worked for decades at McDonnell Douglas, many of the septuagenarians are still working, some full-time.
Lavern Combs, 73, works the midnight shift loading trucks for a company that delivers for Amazon. Ruby Oakley, 74, is a crossing guard. Charles Glover, 70, is a cashier at Dollar General. Willie Sells, 74, is a barber. Leon Ray, 76, buys and sells junk.
“I planned to retire years ago,” Sells says from behind his barber’s chair, where he works five days a week. He once had a job in quality control at the aircraft maker and was employed there 29 years. “I thought McDonnell Douglas was a blue-chip company — that’s what I used to tell people. ‘They’re a hip company and they’re not going to close.’ But then they left town — and here I am still working. Thank God I had a couple of clippers.”
Likewise, Oakley, a crossing guard at an elementary school, said she took the job to supplement her Social Security.
“It pays some chump change — $7 an hour,” Oakley said. She has told local officials they should pay better. “I use it for gas money. I like the people. But we have to get out there in the traffic, and the people at the city think they’re doing the senior citizens a favor by letting them work like this.”
Glover works the cash register and stocks goods at a Dollar General store outside Tulsa to make ends meet. After working 27 years at McDonnell Douglas, Glover found work at a Whirlpool factory, and then at another place that makes robots for inspecting welding, and also picked up some jobs doing computer-aided design.
“I hope I can quit working in a few years, but the way it looks right now, I can’t see being able to,” Glover said recently between customers. “I had to refinance my home after McDonnell Douglas closed. I still owe about 12 years of mortgage payments.”
For some, financial shortfalls have grown acute enough that they have precipitated liens for delinquent bills or led people to file for bankruptcy. None were inclined to talk about their debts.
“It’s a struggle, just say that,” said one woman, 72, who filed for bankruptcy in 2013. “You just try to get by.”