COVID-19 forcing many Americans into early retirement

Posted at 12:04 PM, Sep 04, 2020

At the end of summer, Christina Curfman would typically be rushing to prepare her second-grade classroom. However, it's different this year.

“I started a garden,” said Curfman. “I’ve never planted vegetables my entire life, but my mom always had a garden, and I love it.”

Her newfound happiness is coming with just as much heartbreak.

“I submitted my retirement papers,” said the teacher of 28 years.

It was a tough decision, but with COVID-19 threatening the in-person relationships she loved so much while teaching, she was forced to reconsider going back to school.

“I had a student ask me, ‘Is this coronavirus going to kill us all?’ and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness. I’m not doing this anymore.’”

Curfman knew her body couldn’t take the risk.

“I have an autoimmune disorder. It’s similar to Rheumatoid Arthritis, so I have trouble walking," she explained. "The medications that I take kind of lowers your immune system, too.”

On top of that, a few years ago, she spent weeks in the hospital for a blood clot in her lung.

“I was saying goodbye to friends and family. It looked pretty dire, it looked like I wasn’t going to make it, and I wasn’t willing to test that again,” recalled Curfman. Losing her health would mean losing time with those she loves most: her husband, two children and her pets.

“I’m a mom more than I’m anything else. I have to be able to look at them every day and say, ‘I want to be here for you, and I want to be there for the rest of your life as much as I can be,’” said Curfman. This sentiment is even more important with her daughter’s wedding just months away.

“I want to be there for her wedding," she said. "I’ve waited 30 years for this.”

So, Curfman is stepping away from all she’s known.

“I’ve cried about it every single day,” said Curfman. To make things tougher, the financial hit of retiring early at 55, Curfman said, doesn’t help.

“My retirement pension is $1,000 a month, but my health care is $2,000 a month, so I’m in the hole already trying to make up for that. It’s a huge financial decision, but in the end, you’re talking about your life at stake, so you have to make it work somehow,” said Curfman. Curfman is not alone in facing early retirement. The Brookings Institution estimates that between March and June, 2.9 million older workers lost their jobs because of COVID-19.
The National Bureau of Economic Research found the unemployment rate in April 2020 was 15.4 percent for workers 65 and older, compared to 13 percent for those 25 to 44 years old, and older female workers are at higher risk of unemployment than men.

“We’d sort of would like to see people working a bit longer, you get more out of social security, you don’t have to cover as many years with your retirement savings, and that’s been made much tougher because of COVID-19,” said Martin Baily, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution. For Christina Curfman, the tough choice has come with an outpouring of support.

“It’s tradition at our school when you retire, everyone to fill out a scrapbook page of some retirement advice,” Curfman said, smiling as she flipped through the pages of the scrapbook her colleagues made her.

Even if she wasn’t ready for the advice quite yet, it felt empowering to get it.

“It’s not the way I wanted it to end, certainly. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my class, I didn’t get to say goodbye to my fellow teachers, but that will come,” said Curfman.

She will feel a void that only the laughter of children can fill, but Curfman keeps reminding herself of one thing.

“There is life beyond the classroom, and hopefully, I’ll get to enjoy that soon,” she said. “It’s a horrible time, but it’s a good time to find some other joy.”