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‘Riding the Rail’ Past 60

Older Americans Pass on Retirement

New America Media, News Feature, Anthony D. Advincula Posted: Jun 21, 2009

ABOARD THE AMTRAK — At 8:15 p.m. on a Thursday night, the dining car of the Silver Meteor liner bound for Miami was bustling with passengers. The lights were slightly dimmed and the tables were neatly covered with white disposable cloth.

"Anything for dessert?" Cecilia Huerte, the train's dining stewardess, asked the two young girls sitting with their mother at the table. The plates and glasses on the table shook as the train rumbled against the rail, and Huerte gripped tightly onto the edge of an overhead compartment.

“We have key lime pie, cheesecake and vanilla and chocolate ice cream,” she added.

An immigrant from Chile, 63-year-old Huerte has been working for Amtrak for the last 10 years. Since she came to the United States more than 20 years ago, she has opted to live in Miami.

"It's the beach, you know. I just love it. I don’t think I will be able to live far from the ocean," she said, a smile flashing on her face.

Aware that she is nearing the traditional retirement age, Huerte completely shunned the idea of quitting her job.

"If I stop working at 65, I have a feeling that I'm going down,” she lamented, pushing the sleeves of her blue uniform up to her elbow and brushing her blonde hair back. “Many people get sick after retiring. I'm not going to do that to myself."

According to Jennie Chin Hansen, president of AARP, many older immigrant workers, like Huerte, continue to work even when retirement looms for the same reasons that non-immigrant older people do.

“I think that would be for economic need, a sense of contribution and purpose and for social connectivity,” Hansen said in an emailed statement.

How productive an older worker is depends on the person's physical capacity and stamina, Hansen said.

“They might well be capable of some types of work that require such a manner of functional capacity,” she added. “Of course, care and training as to safe ergonomic principles would hold for older workers as important as it is for anyone who does physical or repetitive activity.”

The Census Bureau data revealed that older Americans who work have increasingly pursued full-time employment.

In March 2007, 81 percent of employed men aged 62 to 64 were working full-time, compared with 77 percent in both 1995 and 1990. Among women 62 to 64 years old, 69 percent worked full-time in March 2007, compared with 60 percent in both 1995 and 1990.

A report from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that the number of boomers who work past retirement will continue to rise. By 2010, according to estimates, nearly 20 percent of the workforce will be over age 55.

Huerte works more than 20 hours straight, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner for passengers. Her route is from Miami to New York City, which takes about 27 hours, given no delays. She gets off in Miami terminal — the final destination of the trip — and, after four days, she boards the train again to New York City.

"When we get to New York, I have to stay in a hotel overnight," she said. “I have to report, though, for work early the next day. You know, I have to prepare many things before the train leaves.”

Admittedly, it could be tough to deal with passengers most of the time, not to mention working on a few hours of sleep on the train, but Huerte expressed satisfaction with her job.

“After many years, I have gotten used to it already. I work for four days, but I also get a four-day off,” she said. “My co-workers are nice — and the pay is good.”

As the kids left the table, Huerte put the soiled dishes on top of each other, folded the table napkins, and clutched them with her arm. “Have a good night — and see you tomorrow for breakfast,” she said as she walked back to the kitchen.

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