Editor’s note: This commentary is by Walter Carpenter, of Montpelier, who is one of those 45 percent of Vermonters without a retirement plan.
I would like to respond to the commentary in VTDigger, “Consider Public Retirement Plan Options,” by Lisa Hagerty, a small business owner and a member of the small business group, Main Street Alliance. Ms. Hagerty gives us some sobering statistics: “About 45 percent of working Vermonters do not have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan. And nationally, half of all employees have no retirement assets — no pension, no 401(k), no IRA.” In other words, almost half of Vermonters and half of the employees nationally have no retirement programs except Social Security, which is hardly enough to exist on, much less live on these days. I am sure that this number is far higher and will grow excessively higher if Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress succeed in their fantasies of dismantling Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
I am one of these statistics and I know how well scary it is behind these numbers. I am 61 years old and have been working since I was 13. Unfortunately, when (or if) I reach that supposed retirement age, I will have no option other than to continue working as I did when I was 45 — eight a day, 40 a week. What will happen when, as a friend so aptly put it, I become “too frail to work and too poor to live?” Will we in that 45 percent just get dumped out into the streets? Will we have to survive as best we can off state programs, adding to this supposed “affordability problem” that everyone is talking about?
The 401(k) suddenly vanished to feed the medical debt and living expenses after the job and the benefits had disappeared into the void.
I work two jobs now. Neither provides any benefits, much less a retirement plan. Some of the my fellow workers at these jobs are in the same situation as me. Several are in their mid or late 60s and 70s, still grinding on at 40 per week because there was no pension or retirement plan at their jobs and Social Security simply is not enough anymore.
I once had a 401(k) retirement plan. I was a mid-level employee at a larger company in Vermont. Yet, I lost it while on medical leave for a life-threatening illness. The company so nicely reclassified my position to conveniently eliminate my benefits and pocket that money themselves while I was on the operating table. The 401(k) suddenly vanished to feed the medical debt and living expenses after the job and the benefits had disappeared into the void. I was 52 then and no company, or the state for that matter, that offered a retirement option as part of employment, wanted a 52-year-old man with a medical history behind him. In other words, I was too old and too risky. The employers who thankfully took a chance and hired me did so from the relative safety of temporary, non-benefit positions.
If there had been such an option as the public retirement plan proposed by Vermont State Treasurer Beth Pearce, and now winding through the committee process in the Legislature, I would not have lost my retirement savings due to an illness and corporate greed. My coworkers in their 60s and 70s would not have had to work like they did in their 40s and 50s to afford to live in their golden years like I will have to do in mine.
This retirement program is called a multi-employer plan (MEP) and both small business owners and employees could contribute and participate in it on a voluntary basis. It is the result of much study by the office of the treasurer. To quote Ms. Hagerty, the MEP would give “every Vermonter access to a secure retirement option.”
Two of Vermont’s small business organizations — the Main Street Alliance and the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility — not only back the MEP plan, but also participated in this study with our state treasurer. They did it and support the MEP because it is the right thing to do for small businesses and their employees who largely compose that 45 percent without any pension or any other access to a retirement plan other than Social Security.
I stand with Ms. Hagerty, the Main Street Alliance, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, and with Treasurer Pearce in highly supporting the MEP. It is the right thing to do for Vermonters. As someone who knows what it means to lose any hope for retirement through circumstances beyond my control, I urge our Legislature to pass the MEP and give all Vermonters an equal shot at a secure (emphasis on the word secure) retirement and not have to fear being “too frail to work and too poor to live.”