At 78, Former Executive Still Flips Burgers for $7.98

“Inactivity drives me crazy,” said Tom Palome, a 78-year-old former marketing executive who works as a short-order cook and bartender to make ends meet.

A year ago, Bloomberg News profiled Palome’s odyssey through the working world of older Americans who haven’t saved enough to retire comfortably. When the story hit, “I had 15 hours of fame” that included paid speaking and consulting gigs, Palome said. Then the thrill wore off and Palome was back to his regular work life and the financial pressure of limited savings.

Following Bloomberg’s story, published in September 2013 and reprinted by newspapers and websites including The Washington Post and Yahoo! Finance, strangers stopped Palome in the street, asking, “Aren’t you the burger man?” ("Yes, I am the burger man,’’ Palome would respond with pride.) Many others tracked him down at work to shake his hand just to “make sure I really existed,” he said.

For a time, it looked like Palome was on his way to becoming a guru for the over-70 set on living, working, and financial planning for those without enough to retire, a large and growing segment of aging Americans.

Palome, who at the height of his career was vice-president of marketing for Oral-B, received calls and e-mails from recruiters with job prospects, invitations to speak at business conferences and overtures from investment advisers. In January, The Mutual Fund Store, an investment management company, asked Palome to speak at its sales meeting in New Orleans, expenses paid, plus a $1,000 stipend.

‘Poster Child’

“It was overwhelming at first,” said Palome. “Suddenly I was the poster child for what a lot of folks my age are going through.”

As baby boomers age, the ranks of employed Americans who were 65 and older jumped 67 percent last year to about 7.2 million from a decade ago, many of whom lack sufficient retirement savings. For couples nearing retirement, median 401(k) and IRA balances fell to $111,000 in 2013 from $120,000 in 2010, according to the just released Federal Reserve’s 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances.

For the working elderly, in the race against the clock, the clock will win eventually. In the past year, Palome, an avid exerciser, had to contend with chronic knee pain that kept him out of work for two months before he finally had surgery. Palome bounced back, but not all the way. He returned to his job at a municipal golf course grill, though Palome quit a second part-time job as a food demonstrator at a Sam’s Club in a Tampa suburb.

Living Will

The knee surgery also forced Palome to confront his future. He gave his 53-year-old daughter, the eldest of his three children, power of attorney to take charge of his finances should he become incapacitated.

“I’m at the age where I’m not going to get out of this world alive,” said Palome with a smile.

His daughter, a corporate executive who lives in New Hampshire, began paying the monthly fee to Palome’s senior community in Plant City, Florida, where he lives in a manufactured home. He deeded his house to her and added her name to his checking and savings accounts. Palome also completed a health-proxy statement and a living will. He even left instructions for his funeral.

Palome has no intention of becoming dependent on his children. Nor is retirement on the horizon. Not one to be fooled, he quickly determined that most of the jobs proposed to him last year were “pyramid marketing schemes” where he’d need money to buy inventory he’d then have to sell. So he stuck to his routine at the golf club grill, a job he said he loves because he’s around people all day long.

Back to Work

He took off just a month following his knee surgery, doing physical therapy several times a week so he could return, using a cane, to his golf club two weeks earlier than his doctor had recommended.

“I told my doctor ’I have to get back to work or I’ll lose my job,’” he said.

His boss welcomed him back to work.

“Everything he does is spot on -- from food preparation to treating customers well and training younger workers,” said Ramona Richey.

In July, after Richey had changed jobs and moved to another Tampa golf course, she persuaded Palome to follow her. He works 20 hours a week over four days, earning $7.98 an hour plus tips or about $300 a week, down slightly from last year.

Income Supplements

The income supplements the $1,200 a month he receives from Social Security plus $600 from a pension from his last corporate job, enabling him to pay for airplane tickets to visit his children and two grandsons, home repairs and other extras.

Palome needs the money. It also helps that he loves being around golfers.

“I speak their language because I’m a golfer myself,” he said. “I can ask things like ’how’s your front nine today?’”

He tells the seniors who call or e-mail him, seeking advice because they lack pensions and sufficient savings, to use the experience and skills they already have and be positive, even if the job pays less than what they once earned.

Outgoing and quick to laugh, Palome never tires of friendly banter and thrives serving in a dual role as career counselor and therapist.

“It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you enjoy doing it. Otherwise you’ll perform poorly,” he said. “I plan to work until I can’t walk. I’m still the burger man.”

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