So much for 'happily ever after': Sears pensioners stagger under stress of cuts

Retirees like Ron Husk of Mount Pearl, N.L., are living on the edge as Sears Canada closes stores across the country.

'My doctors didn't want me to work, but I got to work,' says Sears retiree Ron Husk, 72

Sears retiree Ron Husk, 72, says he had to start a part-time job to deal with the bankrupt company's cuts to his pension package. (CBC/Gary Locke)

Ron Husk pulls onto the parking lot of Home Depot in St. John's, backs his car in, and totters into another day of his part-time job as a greeter, lunch pail in hand. 

After a career with Sears — starting in 1965 at Simpsons-Sears downtown, retiring from the Village Shopping Centre store 35 years later — Husk had worked a bit since retirement but planned to be home with his wife at this point. 

"I went to the funeral of a good friend there a few weeks ago and, it fills you up, you know?"

"Going through things like this now, why should I have to do this?" said Husk. 

Simpsons-Sears in 1972 at 369 Water St. in St. John's. (City of St. John's Archives Photo No. 02-02-008 )

When it became clear his retirement package from Sears Canada was going to end, Husk went to work. 

Life insurance, health and dental benefits were cancelled in September, and along with 18,000 retirees across Canada, Husk expects his pension will be cut by roughly 20 per cent. 

"That leaves me in a spot where, well, I'm going to need more money to make ends meet," he said.

"At 72 years old, you don't expect these things to happen."

'I enjoyed every minute of it'

Husk worked as a trainee in management at first, but moved to appliances to make more money after his wife Florence fell ill in the early 1970s.

He said it was always a wonderful place to work. 

When Ron Husk realized his Sears Canada pension had been cut, he realized he needed to get a part-time job 1:23

"That's why I stayed with them for 35 years. And I enjoyed every minute of it," Husk said in his home in Mount Pearl, showing photos from his retirement party. 

Among his fond memories are the seniors who often sat around the fountain in the shopping mall. 

"They used to come up and say, 'Well, you're soon going to retire; well, b'y, you're going to look back and say, 'it went some fast.' And they're exactly right. It went fast," said Husk. 

"We all look back at our life. It's gone. That's it."

A view of Sears in the Village Mall, with the fountain, circa 1980. (CBC Archives)

Husk's job was all commission, and it was stressful, so after putting in his time he was ready to retire in 2000, trusting he and Florence would be well taken care of with the package he had paid into. 

He didn't think he would be proved wrong.

"I have a health problem. It's genetic on my mother's side of the family. My doctors didn't want me to work, but I got to work," said Husk. 

"If I get sick, I'll have to give it up. We'll have to manage somehow. And I'm sure my wife will be there for me."

Ron Husk says he enjoys his part-time job at Home Depot and the company is great, but he's worried about someday getting too sick to work. (CBC/Bruce Tilley)

Uncertain future

As much as Husk enjoys his current job, he's worried about what will happen when he's not well enough to work any longer — and when his pension is reduced.  

"When you're in your 70s, who wants to cut back on your finances? You try to live comfortable for the rest of your life," he said, reflecting on the number of people he worked with who have passed away. 

"One man who died, who worked with me, he was only three weeks away from his life insurance and he couldn't get it, his wife couldn't get it."

Husk and his wife Florence flanked by his former Sears co-workers in this photo from his retirement party in 2000. (CBC/Gary Locke)

"It's sad, when these companies do this, there's no protection. You think when you retire they say, 'well, you got no worry now, you can retire, live happily ever after.'

"There's no such thing."

With "the price of everything" going up, Husk is stressed about the future — particularly rising electricity costs. 

"We're like everybody else, we live paycheque to paycheque. And now they're going to take part of it away."

'A lot of anxiety amongst our retirees'

Fellow retiree Ken Eady is one of three court-appointed representatives for Sears pensioners across Canada, and a volunteer with Sears Canada Retiree Group

He said the details are still being worked out, but they expect pensioners will see a reduction sometime this year. The only number they have is from 2015, when it was determined the pension plan was underfunded by 19 per cent.

Not knowing what's going to happen or when is causing "a lot of anxiety amongst our retirees," he said. 

Fellow retiree Ken Eady is one of three court-appointed representatives for Sears pensioners across Canada, and expects pensioners will see a reduction some time this year. (Sears Canada Retiree Group)

Losing life insurance and health benefits was enough of a blow, Eady said, as many people like Husk couldn't get coverage or couldn't afford what was available. 

"At 72, having a part-time job is possible. The older you get the less likely you are able to do that. But the impact is the same, the loss is the same. There's people in their 80s and in their 90s — with 18,000 retirees there's people over 100," Eady said. 

"Those pensioners, they're in nursing homes, from what we know some of them are on their own. It can be really difficult."

About the Author

Meghan McCabe

Reporter

Meghan McCabe is a journalist who works with CBC News in St. John's.

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