For some in Sonoma County, pandemic prompted early retirement

The pandemic served as the “straw that pushed me over the edge,” said Pamela Bernier, who now spends part of her time farming fruits on five acres of her Occidental property.|

Pamela Bernier, who ran West County Realty, decided to wind down her real estate brokerage and retire early at age 58 in May 2020.

After 20 years of selling Sonoma County houses, the coronavirus pandemic turned that process upside down and sparked a homebuying frenzy that she quickly realized made her profession no longer appealing.

“I felt badly for my clients,” Bernier said. “I couldn’t provide either the level of service or the detail needed to feel comfortable selling” properties typically listed in Occidental, Sebastopol and Bodega Bay at $1 million or more.

Martha Menth of Windsor abruptly walked away from 32 years of teaching at Kawana Springs Elementary School in south Santa Rosa in August 2020 at age 59.

For the bulk of those years she taught sixth grade. She had been preparing her virtual classroom for the 2020-2021 school year, but could no longer bear the frustration and fear former President Donald Trump caused her with his rhetoric urging all public schools to reopen classrooms while the dreaded infectious disease was sweeping the nation.

“He wanted me to go back to work in a situation that wasn’t safe, and put my students and their families at risk,” said Menth, who at the time was caring for her ailing 92-year-old mother who died last month. “I was furious.”

Bernier and Menth are among a burgeoning group of Northern California residents — and an estimated 3 million people nationwide — who have left their jobs earlier than expected since the pandemic began in March 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

They include people across the salary and occupational spectrum, from burned-out managers to service industry workers at restaurants and retailers tired of long hours and public health risks.

Some left completely on their own accord, while others were furloughed and haven’t returned to the workforce for myriad reasons. There are those who have their sights set on a different vocation and are getting the training and education they need before eventually returning to the labor force.

Others had an epiphany in the pandemic: There’s more to life than work.

They decided after many years on the job and before the pandemic added a new layer of stress, it was time to go — even though they are younger than the traditional retirement age of 65. Some of them, like Bernier and Menth, have adequate retirement investments or pensions, or both, to walk away from work permanently.

Work-life balance disrupted

Robert Eyler, a Sonoma State University economist, said, while there’s no doubt early retirees “shrink the available workforce,” whether they permanently remain out of the Sonoma County labor market over the long haul is what matters most.

For example, a person might retire early and then reemerge locally months or even years later as an independent contractor, consultant or working in a different industry, Eyler said. He noted there’s no solid number for the volume of local people who opted for early retirement because the coronavirus took hold in March 2020.

Employment data shows there’s still about 20,000 fewer workers in the local civilian labor force than there were in January 2020, and there’s anecdotal evidence an unknown but significant amount of people went back to school, switched careers or retired the past 12 to 15 months. That means it could be three or four years until the true impact of the pandemic-induced fluctuation on the county labor market is known, Eyler said.

The economist acknowledged with the county’s aging population if a large group left the workforce with no intention of getting another job, but continues to live in the area, then it can be difficult to replace them in the contracting labor market in which many employers have had to boost wages to fill job openings.

Pandemic-related circumstances greatly altered most jobs. That led to anxiety and unpleasantness for many people.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, a neuroscientist who teaches classes at UC Berkeley on the science of happiness at work, said the pandemic disrupted work-life balance.

Before it, she said, many people had a “work hard, play hard model,” in which they were willing to endure stress and frustration in their jobs, knowing they could check out after the workday and do things enjoyable.

The pandemic isolation deprived people of that, she said.

Simon-Thomas said achieving happiness at work should be viewed broadly and include capacity for pleasant experiences, resilience and a sense of belonging to something bigger than one individual’s pursuits.

“The pandemic forced a reckoning” around workers’ ability to maintain a connection with colleagues and make a fulfilling contribution to an organization or team, she said.

Many people, she said, were asking themselves, “How am I contributing through my work?”

The answer often was, “I want to work in an area that’s meaningful … serves a purpose in the world and gives me, personally, valid justification for where I put my efforts,” said Simon-Thomas, an expert on the psychology of compassion, kindness and gratitude.

Presidential pressure

With the start of virtual instruction weeks away during the late summer of 2020, Menth put her anger toward Trump and concerns about potentially having to return to an unsafe classroom into words and drafted an email she sent to family members.

Her brother Lawrence Menth, a lawyer in Auburn, responded that maybe it was time to call it a career after three decades.

“He was right,” she said of her brother’s notion.

Soon, Menth contacted Kawana school officials to inform them of her decision to retire.

She made no bones about why. The main reason she retired was Trump’s insistence that schools could reopen safely when people continued to get sick and die from the pandemic disease, and there was no vaccine yet available.

“His attitude was awful. I was so angry at his lack of leadership,” she recalled.

She lambasted “this hideous proposition” to call for school reopenings and “use teachers as fodder” to prop up his reelection campaign.

Menth, now 60, explained that her school sits in a lower income neighborhood, therefore the students’ parents were largely “essential workers” taking on greater health risk by continuing to do their jobs.

Because there wasn’t sufficient personal protective equipment for teachers and staff, she said, her Kawana classroom “was going to be a giant petri dish” for the spread of COVID-19 had in-person teaching resumed last year.

Although Trump threatened to withhold federal funding to schools in states that defied him, California education officials turned a deaf ear to the president and didn’t begin reopening the majority of campuses until spring of this year.

Boomer workforce exodus

Over the past 20 years, workers have remained in the workforce until age 65 or older in far greater numbers than in the 1990s, according to U.S. labor market data. It appears it took a pandemic to finally reverse that trend.

Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Labor Department third-quarter statistics in September 2020 showed about 28.6 million Baby Boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — reported they retired from the labor force.

This is 3.2 million more boomers than the 25.4 million who retired in the same quarter of 2019. Until last year, the overall number of retired boomers had been growing annually by about 2 million on average since 2011, according to Pew.

The largest increase was 2.5 million between the third quarter of 2014 and 2015.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s recent survey of consumer expectations of the U.S. labor market showed the average expected likelihood of working beyond the age of 67 had declined from 35.3% of respondents in July 2019 to 32.9% in March 2021. It is the lowest number since the survey, done every four months, was started in 2014.

The last straw

As the pandemic lingered into this year, Sonoma County’s housing market soared to record median prices for single-family homes. The driver was remote work that enabled Bay Area residents to vacate urban settings and buy houses here. Many of these buyers from places like San Francisco were flush with cash and they used it often to bid up prices on houses across the county.

Bernier, now 59, recalled buyers making “insane” offers as much as $500,000 over asking prices, as house price tags “soared into the realm of unreason.”

Local residents trying futilely to buy were forced to participate in bidding wars and make offers without home inspections and other common buying protections.

“Locals got priced out of the market … and everything got careless and rushed,” she said. “It was a big income to walk away from, and yet, I was done. I didn’t want to be a part of that atmosphere.”

Bernier, who grew up in Marin County, had planned to retire in 2023, a year after her son Liam’s high school graduation.

The pandemic served as the “straw that pushed me over the edge,” said Bernier, who now spends part of her time farming fruits on five acres of her Occidental property.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Bomberger at 707-521-5246 or On Twitter @BiznewsPaulB

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