Column: She’s 80, washing dishes, and fighting for a better deal for younger workers

Women holding signs picket in Inglewood.
Salud Garcia, 80, who works for Flying Food Group, walks the picket line with the help of Unite Here Local 11 in Inglewood.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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In the land of killer commutes, Salud Garcia’s trek is such a slog, she should get a gold medal at the finish line each day.

She leaves her home in Reseda before dawn, takes a bus to a train, then another bus, followed by another. When she arrives at her job site near LAX — more than two hours later — it’s just about 7 a.m.

“I run to the bathroom and then get to work,” said Garcia, a dishwasher for a food catering company that serves airlines.


After work, Garcia will sometimes get lucky and catch a ride home from a co-worker. But usually, she reverses her commute, which means eight or nine hours on the job and, then, several hours in transit.

California is about to be hit by an aging population wave, and Steve Lopez is riding it. His column focuses on the blessings and burdens of advancing age — and how some folks are challenging the stigma associated with older adults.

What makes this all the more remarkable, or heartbreaking, if you prefer, is her age.

“I’ll be 81 in August,” said Garcia, who is known to lead colleagues in Inglewood out to a picket line on her lunch break in their fight for a better contract. She told me she won’t benefit much, given her age, but she wants younger employees to be able to “retire with dignity.”

I heard about Garcia from a Unite Here Local 11 spokeswoman while researching a column on workers who can’t retire. I’ve known lots of people who keep working because they want to, but I wanted to meet people who keep working because they have to.

The rent is too high. The retirement fund has dried up or never existed. Social Security doesn’t cover the bills, and the kids and grandkids need help. People keep working, often in physically demanding jobs, for all those reasons and more.

Last summer I visited an early-morning picket line, another United Here site, outside the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica, and among the 23 housekeepers, dishwashers and other employees asking for a better contract, six of them were in their 60s and two were in their 70s.

“My knee hurts,” said 67-year-old dishwasher Jose Ayala, who told me he was working two jobs, for a total of 13 hours each day, to support a family of four in a Culver City apartment.


A few years ago, I was researching my book on retirement, and I’ll never forget the sight of a man in his 70s working at a big box store near Knott’s Berry Farm. He was somewhat disfigured from surgery for cancer, and he told me his foot ached because he was standing for so many hours every day keeping an eye on the self-checkout counters.

He’d retired once, but had to return to work as funds dwindled and costs rose, and he didn’t know when he might be in good enough financial shape to retire again. When I checked in with his wife a year or so later, she told me her husband had finally retired, and then died a short time later.

A woman wearing a hair net takes a break from walking a picket line.
Salud Garcia, 80, right, takes a break from walking the picket line. Experts say there’s been an increase in the number of people working over the age of 65 and into their 70s.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“There’s been an increase in the number of people working over the age of 65 and even into their 70s,” said Nari Rhee, director of the Retirement Security Program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

But finding work is no cinch, she said, thanks in part to age discrimination — especially in tech.

With pensions all but gone in the private sector, Rhee said, half of working Americans have no retirement benefits other than Social Security. Even if 401(k)s are offered by an employer, “most lower-wage workers do not opt in because they can’t afford to. … The system has really let American workers down, especially at the lower end of the labor market.”


Garcia, who has been at her current job for more than 30 years, makes a bit more than $21 an hour with a healthcare plan and a 401(k), among other benefits under the terms of a contract. But it expired nearly two years ago, and negotiations are lagging.

Her employer, an airline caterer, sent me the pay scale and benefits package for its more than 500 employees, along with a brief statement. It said, in part, that the Flying Food Group “has created hundreds of jobs in the L.A. area offering great pay and benefits while providing a modern and safe working environment for all.”

The union begs to differ, pointing to multiple findings in the last few years by city, county and state agencies that safety standards and compensation requirements have not been met. Last August, the state labor commissioner fined Flying Food Group $1.2 million, alleging the company had lagged in rehiring 21 California employees (18 of them in Inglewood) who were laid off during the pandemic.

To be fair, the Flying Food pay and benefits aren’t bad. It’s just that given housing costs and other expenses, a lot of employees end up commuting long distances and working through old age and advancing ailments. At Garcia’s job site, 34 of her colleagues are 65 and older, and 14 of those are 70 and older, according to the union.

One of the union goals, in addition to $25 an hour, is a pension plan. My first thought was sure, everybody would like pensions, but they’re a thing of the past. And a lot of businesses operate on thin margins, so higher pay packages can lead to fewer jobs.

But we can’t let profitable employers or the government off the hook for the steady march of older adults into abject poverty. When I interviewed New School economics professor Teresa Ghilarducci last year for the column on hotel employees, she said pensions and lowering the Medicare age would go a long way toward easing their burden.

 A woman carries a sign while picketing with fellow workers.
Salud Garcia’s day includes several hours in transit and eight or nine hours on the job.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that neither of those ideas can be considered viable at the moment, but in written testimony earlier this year for a U.S. Senate committee, Ghilarducci laid out a stark view of what she called America’s “severely broken” retirement system, which lags shamefully behind countries that haven’t let their elders down.

“By international standards,” she said, “elderly poverty in America is remarkably high: 23% of American elders are poor; in Canada the elder poverty rate is 12%; in the U.K. the elder poverty rate is over 15%; in France, it’s 4.4%; and in the Netherlands (whose pension system consistently ranks as one of the world’s best) just 3.1% of elders are poor.”

Garcia gets by, but only because she keeps working. She and her late husband separated many years ago, she told me, and for a period, she worked two jobs to support her children, one of whom died in his 30s from a heart ailment.

Outside her Reseda apartment one evening, after yet another 14-hour day, I noticed that Garcia was limping. She said her left knee was bothering her from long days emptying the food carts that flight attendants push through the aisles of jets. Garcia said she shovels the dishes into dishwashers that sometimes leak, leaving her standing in puddles.

Garcia shares her apartment and splits the bills with her 40-year-old son, Brigido, a physical therapist who told me his mother’s advice has been constant through the years.


“Never give up. Life is tough as we know it. We’ve got to show everybody that we can do it,” he said.

That’s the spirit his mother took to the picket line in Inglewood one day. Garcia led her colleagues out to the street during their lunch break, where they took up signs and called for a new contract.

“One day I asked her, ‘Why don’t you retire?’” said Rafael Leon, a Flying Food dishwasher-turned-union rep whom I met in 2015, when he and his family lived in a converted garage. “She said, ‘Son, if I leave this job, that’s a death sentence.’”

She’s fighting for the younger employees, she told him, because they stand to benefit the most.

As Garcia put it to me:

“I want to see this through. We’re going to fight until we finish.”

If you’re working late in life out of financial necessity, or know someone who is, please let me know at