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Plight of the ‘Physical Worker’: Worn-Out Bodies and Little Savings

Shawn McCadden began working for his father’s handyman business in Massachusetts in 1970, when he was 11. At 32, he started his own building company. Just three years later, his back told him it was time to find a new line of work.

Mr. McCadden, now 61, has sciatica. Both of his legs get weak by the middle of the day, he said, even though he hasn’t swung a hammer professionally since the mid-1990s. His father, John McCadden, 87, is feeling the effects of decades of physical labor, too: “Like a lot of us, he abused his body when he was young,” Shawn McCadden said. “He’s hurting.”

The McCaddens, both retired, each accepted physical wear and tear as a side effect of earning a living when they entered the home remodeling field. But what the younger Mr. McCadden refused to accept by the time he turned over day-to-day operations of his business, Custom Contracting, to a manager in 1996 was financial pressure to keep toiling past his body’s breaking point. And in that, he may be unusual.

“Workers in physically demanding jobs are a vulnerable group, and they’re not getting adequate attention,” said Catherine Collinson, chief executive and president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, a Los Angeles nonprofit.

Making them vulnerable, suggests a global study that Transamerica co-published last year, is the lack of a safety net once stiffening joints and other normal signs of aging kick in. The toll taken on the body by strenuous occupations leaves workers at risk of aging out of a paycheck before they are financially ready to retire — or before they qualify for Social Security and Medicare.

“What we saw is that many are being overly optimistic about remaining in their positions until they reach retirement age,” Ms. Collinson said.

The age of the survey’s 16,000 respondents provided a clue about their optimism. Eighteen percent of those identifying themselves as physical workers were 55 or older, Ms. Collinson said — an indication that many of these older workers had to call it quits before 65, the age at which most said they planned to retire.

Over all, less than 20 percent of physical workers in the United States are 55 or older, the study found, compared with 44 percent of nonphysical workers. Only 6 percent are 65 or older — a much smaller portion than the 24 percent over 65 who hold nonphysical jobs. The median age of people in jobs that the researchers defined as demanding — like farm and factory workers, machine operators and cleaning crews — was 36.

The winnowing of older workers in physical jobs worries Ms. Collinson, especially now. “If workers in physically demanding jobs faced retirement-related risks before the pandemic, now they’re amplified,” she said. “If they’re essential workers, they risk exposure to the virus.”

If they are out of work — not unlikely, given a recent analysis by McKinsey and Company that shows that jobs in manufacturing have been among the most susceptible to layoffs during the spread of coronavirus — it may be difficult for them to switch careers. Education is a factor, Ms. Collinson said. The Transamerica survey found that 49 percent of physical workers in the United States had a college degree. For white-collar workers, that number was 61 percent.

“This disparity in educational attainment can make it more difficult for them to pivot and find work in another field,” Ms. Collinson said.

Assuming that the reward for sticking it out at a strenuous job will be a healthy pension at the finish line is no longer realistic.

“One version of the story of physical workers is the prototypical autoworker from the 1960s, whose job came bundled with benefits and a pension,” said Timothy Flacke, executive director of Commonwealth, a national nonprofit group that researches and tests solutions to financial insecurity.

“Another version,” he continued, “is the freelance landscaper who moonlights at an Amazon distribution center and maybe does some house painting but has no institutional structure for retirement planning at his disposal.”

Mr. Flacke and Ms. Collinson were unaware of research documenting the percentage of physical workers who don’t have access to retirement benefits like 401(k)s. But both said the latter story, of a worker stitching together a living through several part-time gigs, was a common one.

And regardless of benefit packages, “there’s a strong correlation between physically demanding work and lower-income work,” Mr. Flacke said. “Lower-income workers are financially stressed, and they have very little retirement savings.”

ImageAfter selling his construction business, Mr. McCadden shifted to helping fellow contractors.
After selling his construction business, Mr. McCadden shifted to helping fellow contractors. Credit…Yoon Byun for The New York Times

Mr. McCadden, who now lives in Brookline, N.H., knows a lot about that. After he sold Custom Contracting in 2004, he started a consulting company, Remodel My Business, to help fellow contractors navigate a path to profitability and retirement.

“Contractors usually start out as carpenters, and the majority of them jump in thinking: ‘This is great. I’m going to make 35 dollars an hour instead of 26,'” he said. “They don’t usually have a lot of business savvy.” He retired from Remodel My Business at the start of the pandemic.

“When I did live training sessions, I often asked how many people in the room expect to work until they die,” Mr. McCadden said. Routinely, 70 percent raised a hand. “There’s a lot of nervous laughter after that. The majority of the people in the industry are good craftsmen. They know how to work hard, but they don’t know how to manage the future.”

Mr. McCadden took steps to map his own future after watching his father struggle to retire in the 2000s. “I learned a lot from his experience,” he said. “He had little to no time for anything other than his business and sleeping, and he struggled, physically, to get to retirement. Because he didn’t know the business part, I made a point of figuring it out.”

Now, aside from the sciatica and knee pain, Mr. McCadden lives comfortably, having made a variety of investments and selling his company.

Sabrina Robinson is not sure she will be so lucky. Ms. Robinson, 55, cleans medical and dental offices in San Francisco for a janitorial company, Janico Building Services. At the end of 2019, she started saving through CalSavers, a new state program in which workers are automatically enrolled in an individual retirement plan to save if their employers do not provide a retirement plan. Workers can opt out.

Ms. Robinson had no retirement savings before Janico introduced her to CalSavers, even though she has been working since she was 14, often in the medical field in convalescent homes and as a certified nursing assistant.

Socking away money was always a challenge for one reason or another, she said. But directing a small percentage of her paycheck toward an I.R.A. through CalSavers has provided a glimmer of hope that she and her fiance, Brian Walker, also a janitor, may be able to retire when their bodies tell them it’s time.

It’s a fleeting glimmer, though. “I’m really worried about being able to retire,” Ms. Robinson said. She already has aches and pains from years of working on her feet, but “because of the cost of living and having bills,” she said, “you have no choice but to continue to work.”

Whether the CalSavers I.R.A. will accumulate enough money to allow her to retire when she wants to remains to be seen. Until then, she’ll keep pushing her mop.

“I walk in faith,” she said. “As long as God keeps giving me breath in my body, I’m going to keep going.”


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Originally posted on The New York Times. All rights reserved.

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