Starting A Second Career At Age 60

Donna ReadDonna Read never planned to spend the rest of her life working at a grocery store. But the decent wages and great benefits kept her there for 12 years, until she was fired last summer. At age 58, Read fell into poverty, and into a depression that kept her in bed for three months.

But now Read is going back to school, as she has always wanted, thanks to state retraining benefits for the unemployed. After over a decade of selling groceries and moving boxes, Read will train to become a substance abuse counselor, with the hope of helping the homeless with their addictions -- a struggle that she knows all too well herself. Along the way she also learned some harsh lessons about being laid off at midlife, and starting over.

12 Years of Loyalty

In many ways, the recession battered workers ages 55 or over the hardest; many baby boomers were laid off from companies that they'd been loyal to for decades, and then had less time to start over in new careers and recoup lost savings. In the past few years, older Americans were less likely than those in other age groups to lose their jobs, but were far less likely to find new work if they did. In early 2012, 44 percent of older job seekers had been out of work for at least a year, according to the Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative. After all, a younger, cheaper worker seems, at first glance, to be a much better investment than 58-year-old Read.

More:How I Survived Nearly 2 Years Of Unemployment

Read's job at the supermarket chain QFC in Seattle began as a summer gig in the year 2000. She wanted to do something else with her life, but the paycheck wasn't too bad; over 12 years the annual raises brought her to $14.75 an hour. The stability helped her quit drinking and smoking. The generous benefits also covered her various medications -- for cholesterol, thyroid issues, restless leg syndrome and depression.

She was also good at it, she says. For the first eight years, she worked in a store, and always received positive evaluations. Then she moved into the warehouse where QFC made its sandwiches, salads, dressings and dips. "I worked with a bunch of kids who sometimes struggled to keep up with me -- which I was proud of."


Then last August, Read was fired, two days before her 58th birthday. Her boss said it was because she'd been late four times that year. "I essentially got Walmart-ed," says Read, referring to the common accusation that Walmart tries to keep its staff part-time, so as to avoid paying them benefits. QFC declined to comment on any element of Read's story, saying the company does not discuss personnel matters with the media.

Stunned, and believing the termination was unfair, Read had the union file a grievance on her behalf, and then another a month later, and then another a month after that. During that time, Read could hardly get out of bed. "I was so depressed, and so shocked. I couldn't even wrap my head around the idea that I had been fired."

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Read was still hopeful that she could get her job back, but had nothing to live on while she waited. She had no savings, and says she was unable to get unemployment benefits. This can happen when there are inconsistencies between the employer and employee's stories, according to Sheryl Hutchinson, communications director for Washington's Employment Security Department. So Read applied for food stamps, and then sold most of her clothes and shoes on eBay.

Becoming A Human Being Again

Then something shifted. "I woke up one morning, and I thought, 'I never have to go back there again!' " Read chirps. "It was liberating."

In February, Kroger agreed to give Read $100 for each year she had worked. She thinks that the store settled because it was wary of the possibility of an age-discrimination lawsuit. At the same time, Read was able to get her unemployment benefits too.

"If a worker in a very similar circumstance had not had a union and a union contract that allowed her to challenge that, there wouldn't have been any recourse," Tom Geiger, the spokesman for Read's old union UFCW 21, told AOL Jobs.

"I'm a human being again," Read thought when she got the first check, which she handed straight over to her landlord, who had been letting her live in her apartment rent-free for six months.

More:Ready For A Career Switch? Don't Skip These Steps

Once Read got on the unemployment rolls, she had a mandatory meeting at WorkSource, the state's resource center for job seekers. That's where she learned about worker retraining programs. "There were ways that it could be completely funded, even books and a bus pass," Read says. "My ears went, 'What!' "

On April 1, Read will start classes at Highline Community College in Des Moines, Wash., to become a certified substance abuse counselor. As a former addict who has spent stretches homeless, it felt suddenly like a calling.

"I've always wanted to do that," says Read, who realizes that she'll be starting her new career at the age of 60. "I can look at my experience, and say, 'This is what I thought about when I wanted a cigarette, or a drink, or to do a line. I know these things for real."

Toilet Paper Thief

But without any income, it's still a hard to get by each day. Read receives $291 a week in unemployment benefits, and three weeks of every month that check goes straight to rent. The final week goes toward utilities, Internet, cat food, and a bus pass. Then she has $16 a week in food stamps.

"You don't think about toilet paper, until you have no money," says Read, who admits that she began pilfering toilet rolls from the Safeway bathroom. "I became a thief, I did! And I felt so bad about it I wanted to confess."

More:Workers Over 50 Are The New 'Unemployables'

But overall, her unemployment has given her a new perspective on how she'll spend the final decades of her life. She's been taking more pictures, one of her greatest passions. And selling her belongings and cutting down on shopping, she says, "became a positive thing. ... I realized I had too much stuff."

And while she's excited about her new career, Read's more cynical about the state of her finances. When asked how long she'll keep working, she replies, like 28 percent of Americans, "until I die."

Now feeling back on a positive track, Read has some advice for the millions of other Americans who have been laid off:

1. Go to your state, and throw yourself on their mercy. Read urges people who lack savings to take advantage of all the benefits the state has to offer. "Get food stamps, that's a dignity," she says. "Get Medicaid, that's a dignity."

2. Don't listen to politicians. Read's frustrated by politicians who imply that the people using those services are freeloading in some way. "I paid into it for 30 years, and I had to use it," she says about the safety net. "I don't appreciate politicians, rich people, telling me it shouldn't be an entitlement. I paid for it. I paid for it out of the meager salary I earned all these years, compared to theirs'."

3. It's not about you. "No one has job security whether you think so or not," she continues. "A downturn in the economy can destroy your life. Anyone who is smug and arrogant enough to lump everyone together who's unemployed in the same category as lazy, shiftless -- they need to watch their backs. ... It can happen to anybody."

4. See a therapist. "With Medicaid, get a therapist. ... You slave away at a company for all those years, and they throw you out like you're worthless. It messes with your head," she explains. "Most people think they can do it, particularly women my age. They think they can do it on their own. And some can do. But it's better to have a couple therapy sessions than three months in bed."

5. Go out. Half of unemployed workers have avoided social situations with friends and acquaintances, according to a survey by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. Forty-four percent said they'd lost contact with close friends. "When this happens to you, especially at this age, don't hide. Get help," advises Read. "So many people hide away, and slip into these deep, deep depressions, whether they've had it all their lives or not."
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