American workers are promised a comfortable retirement if they work hard and remain loyal to their employer. Unfortunately, if you're over 50, getting fired before retirement is the norm, not the exception.
Losing your job at any time is stressful. But older workers have added worries about pensions, retirement savings, healthcare, and more. This post answers common questions people have after getting fired or laid off and provides actionable tips about what to do next.
Do you lose your pension if you get fired before retirement?
Determining whether you lose your pension if you get fired before retirement depends on the vesting guidelines at your employer.
According to the Pension Rights Center, around 22 percent of America's workforce participates in a pension plan. Many pension plans require employee contributions that equal a certain percentage of their pre-tax pay. If you contribute to your pension, you get to keep your contributions, even if you get fired. How much you keep of the employer contribution, though, varies.
Most pension plans tie vesting to length of employment. They also usually vest in stages. For example, your pension plan may vest 25 percent after 2 years of employment, 50 percent after 5 years, and 100 percent after 10. Therefore, the amount you get to keep after getting fired depends on how long you worked for the employer.
These protections are thanks to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which ensures you keep your contributions and any vested employer contributions.
Your employer may offer a cash payout of your pension upon termination, or may even require you to take it. If so, talk to a tax accountant before accepting any lump sum payments. Most financial advisors will recommend rolling those funds into a retirement plan, such as an IRA. You could face serious tax penalties otherwise.
What happens to your 401(k) if you get fired before retirement?
More than half of American workers contribute to a workplace-sponsored retirement plan like a 401(k). What happens to those funds if you're fired before retiring is similar to what happens with a pension. You get to keep your own contributions. The plan's vesting rules dictate how much you keep of employer contributions.
As with pensions, you may face tax penalties for withdrawing funds from a retirement plan, particularly if you're under 60. Talk to a financial advisor about rolling these funds into a private retirement plan.
Can you be fired after announcing retirement?
The short answer is yes, you can be fired after announcing your plans to retire. Most U.S. workers are considered "employed at will," which means they can be terminated at any time, with or without cause.
Even so, employers typically prefer to let employees leave on their own accord after they announce they're leaving. Otherwise, they may have to pay unemployment benefits. But that doesn't mean they won't walk you out the door the same day you announce your intention to retire. And, depending how early you made that announcement, this may present a financial hardship.
Tips to protect your interests include:
Don't announce your plan to retire too early.
You may feel that you need to give plenty of notice so they can find a replacement, and that's a great sentiment. But sentiment and business rarely mix. If you really want to give several months' notice, wait until it won't hurt you financially if your employer opts for immediate termination.
Announce your retirement in writing.
A written announcement of your intention to retire provides documentation that you gave ample notice. It also removes all questions about why you're leaving. You intend to retire. There is no question about job performance or satisfaction. And nobody can misinterpret what happened the way they can when a conversation is relayed to higher-ups.
Healthcare options if you get fired before retirement
Many Americans' health insurance is tied to their employment. If you lose your job, you lose your health plan. What you do next depends in part on how old you are.
If you're age 65 or older, you can (and should) sign up for Medicare. This is true even if you opt for the COBRA insurance most employers offer after a termination. That's because, according to federal law, Medicare is the primary payer for patients over age 65 if they don't have creditable coverage. To learn more about creditable coverage, read our post here.
COBRA insurance is not considered creditable. What's more, if you're over 65, COBRA will only pay after Medicare pays its share – even if you don't have Medicare. That could leave you on the hook for 80 percent of healthcare costs.
If you're under 65 or have a spouse or child that you need to provide coverage for, you may want to take advantage of COBRA. You can also buy private insurance under the Affordable Care Act through the Health Insurance Marketplace.
Our Find a Plan tool makes it easy to start comparing your Medicare plan options. Just enter your location information, expected start date, and hit Continue to start comparing plans in your area.
Apply for unemployment
Any time you lose a job involuntarily, you should apply for unemployment. Even though payments rarely come close to your previous salary, they can still help cover living expenses while you decide what to do next. And these days, applying is easier than ever, since it's done online.
If your request is denied, don't hesitate to appeal the decision. You may be able to supply information that leads to a reversal. Besides, appealing costs you nothing but a little time.
Can you retire early?
Depending on personal factors, such as your age and financial situation, you may be able to retire early.
- Review your budget. Most of us have at least a little fat in our budgets, such as eating out too often and professional services we can perform ourselves.
- Determine whether you have enough in liquid savings to cover expenses until you retire.
- Does your plan for retirement include money-saving lifestyle changes, such as moving to a smaller home or less expensive area? Fast-forwarding those changes may make early retirement possible.
Talk to an accountant or financial advisor about your options. They can help you understand tax breaks – or penalties – for each of your options.
Should you apply for Social Security if you get fired before retirement?
If you're age 62 or older, you may be tempted to apply for Social Security. Whether you should or not depends on your unique situation.
Retiring early reduces your monthly benefit. The amount of that reduction depends on how early you retire. For example, if you're 62, you lose over 28 percent. But, you also get to draw Social Security longer than if you'd waited until full retirement age.
Luckily, it's easy to see what your projected Social Security benefit will be at any age. Just create a my Social Security account to get started.
What are the odds you'll get fired before retirement?
The odds you'll be fired before retirement are, sadly, fairly high. According to a 24-year study by ProPublica and the Urban Institute, around 56 percent of workers over age 50 are let go from a job at least once. That isn't over a lifetime of working, either. It's the number of people who lose at least one job after turning 50.
Future employment prospects aren't that rosy, either. The same study revealed that only around 10 percent of workers went on to earn comparable salaries at another job. It also took them much longer to find another job than their younger counterparts.
So, how can you protect yourself from becoming one of these statistics?
How to protect yourself from getting fired before retirement
There are no guarantees against losing a job. But you can strengthen your position at work and maybe even set yourself up for a faster recovery in the event you do get fired.
- Build a strong network that includes current and former coworkers, friends, family, and other professionals both in and out of your industry.
- Make sure your job skills remain sharp and up-to-date.
- Demonstrate your value to the company by joining committees and sharing your ideas.
- Pay attention to what's happening both with your employer and in your industry. Don't gossip, but definitely pay attention to it.
Finally, join an industry association. It helps keep skills fresh. You'll also be able to get leads on new jobs if you get fired before retirement.