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An excellent article by reporter John Leland, entitled Retiring Later is Hard Road for Laborers, appeared this week in the New York Times.

In the context of the current debate about raising the Social Security retirement age, Mr. Leland wrote about the difficulties faced by aging workers in labor-intensive jobs. He related the story of a worker in a tire factory:

At the Cooper Tire plant in Findlay, Ohio, Jack Hartley, who is 58, works a 12-hour shift assembling tires: pulling piles of rubber and lining over a drum, cutting the material with a hot knife, lifting the half-finished tire, which weighs 10 to 20 pounds, and throwing it onto a rack.

Mr. Hartley performs these steps nearly 30 times an hour, or 300 times in a shift. “The pain started about the time I was 50,” he said. “Dessert with lunch is ibuprofen. Your knees start going bad, your lower back, your elbows, your shoulders.”

He said he does not think he can last until age 66, when he will be eligible for full Social Security retirement benefits. At 62 or 65, he said, “that’s it.”

Mr. Leland's article also gave an account of an airline ramp serviceman:

This is not news to Jim McGuire, 62, a ramp serviceman for United Airlines, who started lifting bags into airplanes 43 years ago. He has had rotator cuff surgery and separated a shoulder on the job.

“From 50 to 60 was a drastic change,” he said. “The aches and pains, the feeling that your back could go at any second. My hips are worn out. In a seven-day week, I take Advil five nights for the pain.”

Mr. McGuire said that he did not have a planned retirement date, but that he hoped to make it to 66. Since United’s pension plan was taken over by the government, cutting his benefits in half, he says Social Security has become a much bigger part of his future plans.

These workers feel "stuck" working at their labor-intensive jobs until retirement age. Many older workers become unable to continue such jobs, and take Social Security early retirement benefits, incurring a 25% penalty.

However, if workers like these are unable to continue their employment, the better choice is to apply for Social Security disability benefits. Disability benefits are paid at the full retirement age amount; there is no 25% penalty.

Taking disability is not welfare. Mr. McGuire, for example, has paid into the Social Security system for over 40 years. Yet, many thousands of workers like him simply take early retirement, because they do not realize that disability benefits are available (in fact, you can apply for Social Security disability benefits and early retirement benefits at the same time).

The policymakers considering the issue of raising the Social Security retirement age should reflect seriously upon the plight of older laborers like these two men. If the retirement age is raised, then the Social Security disability program will be even more important for aging workers. The disability program should be strengthened (or at least not weakened) to protect these workers. That way, laborers near retirement age will have the option of applying for disability if they can no longer perform their past relevant work and qualify for disability benefits under Social Security's rules. Also, much more needs to be done to ensure that workers age 61-65 are aware of their options. 

I emailed John Leland about some of these concerns, and he graciously replied to me.

Related articles:     

Social Security Disability vs. Early Retirement

Social Security – Early Retirement Benefits or Disability Benefits?