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Easing into retirement isn’t easy for some TDCJ workers

It’s something most people look forward to, but easing into an easy chair was anything but easy for Darrell McCracken when he retired last March after working more than 22 years for TDCJ in different capacities. He tended to his home garden and otherwise tried to keep busy restoring old cars and working on motors for no pay at a motorcycle shop. Still, he was only 50 and just didn’t feel comfortable living the so-called "life of leisure" at that age.

McCracken standing next to a table with a bullet proof vest
After just five months in retirement, Darrell McCracken returned to TDCJ to work as an inventory coordinator at the agency’s Security Operations Warehouse in Huntsville.
Photos by David Nunnelee
“I sold a lot of stuff on ebay and had fun doing that, but even that gets old after a while,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe I was retired. And it was hard for me to tell people I was retired. They looked at me funny, like they thought I should be working.”

Before long, McCracken’s sense of self-worth began to slide.

“I never thought I was going to feel worthless for not working,” he said. “It was a strange deal. The first thirty days were great, but then you start to feel a little bit worthless.”

So eight months after retiring from his job as a program administrator in the Correctional Training Department, McCracken returned to work as an inventory coordinator at TDCJ’s Security Operations Warehouse in Huntsville. He is one of a number of employees, who for different reasons, have come and gone and come back again.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity to be able to come back,” McCracken said. “If I wasn’t here I know I would be somewhere else working. I wouldn’t be at home watching television.”

State law permits retired employees to return to work no sooner than one calendar month after they leave. Employees who retired after June 1 of this year are ineligible for both longevity pay and benefit replacement pay. They also earn annual leave as if they were new employees.

Retirees who have returned to TDCJ in all positions now number about 650, a fraction of the agency’s workforce of 38,100. Still, the number of working retirees is increasing. Between September 2004 and April 2005, 145 retired workers returned to TDCJ. Retirees who have returned to work as correctional officers now number approximately 470, with nearly 400 working full-time. Another 70 work part-time.

“To include correctional officers, the trend is that on a monthly basis we’re seeing anywhere from 25 to 30 people coming back,” said TDCJ Human Resources Director Carol Blair Johnston. “The number is trending upward.”

Johnston said she’s not surprised by the upward trend of retirees returning to work, especially among those who retire at a relatively young age.

“There are a large number of people who at age 50 are going to return to the workforce,” she said. “Whether they’re going to return to our agency or somewhere else is a personal decision, but I think that a lot of people who have worked for the state and have been satisfied with state employment would certainly seek to come back.”

Several factors played into McCracken’s decision to retire. Even though he says he was not mentally ready to call it quits when he did, financially, the timing was right. Not only did he qualify for full retirement benefits based on his years of service and age, but he was also able to buy three years of military service and another three years of state time, giving him more than 29 years of service credit. On top of that, by retiring when first becoming eligible, he qualified for a cash incentive equivalent to 25 percent of his base salary.

“It was a good deal for me all the way around,” he said.

What he didn’t bank on was feeling personally shortchanged.

“I had a lot of projects but I did everything so quickly that within 30 days I had finished them all,” he said. “You really have to plan out what you’re going to do. I strongly advise people who retire to have a hobby to keep them occupied. Otherwise, you’ll waste away.”

“I think a lot of people took advantage of the incentive but were probably not mentally prepared for the changes in their lives that comes with retirement,” Johnston noted. “I think it’s a matter of how do you fill your day? A lot of people you were choosing to do recreational activities with may not be available because they’re still working. So the question is, what do you do? Do you go back to work? Do you pick up a hobby? Or do you volunteer?”

Currie standing behind front counter and a "welcome Please sign in" sign
TDCJ retiree Treva Currie now works as a receptionist at the Human Resources Administration Building in Huntsville.
At age 55, Treva Currie thought she was ready for retirement when she left the agency in January 2000 after 22 years. She wasn’t.

“I thought I was, but after I was off I actually missed being around people,” she said about why she returned to TDCJ just five months after retiring. “It’s like you don’t have a purpose. The first week I thought, ‘Golly, I don’t have a job.’ It just hits you all of a sudden. I would get up and think, ‘I can only clean this house so much.’ I began to get lazy and I didn’t like that.”

Malcolm Mire retired in November 2001 at age 51 with more than 27 years of service, 25 years with what is now the Facilities Division of TDCJ. At the time, he had some family business to attend to and also felt like he had reached the top of his career ladder as a quality management trainer in Facilities.

“I was pleased with the job I had, but it was one of those where there wasn’t much else I could do,” he said. “And I was working for very little when you compare what I brought home retired to what I brought home from the job.”

Yet he returned to TDCJ just six months later, this time as a program administrator in the Chaplaincy Department. In May of this year, he moved to the Victim Services Division in Huntsville as a training specialist.

“I enjoyed retirement but I missed TDCJ and the people I worked with,” Mire said. “I had in mind that I was going to work some place. At 51, I was too young to just lay it down. I have some hobbies but I’m not that into my hobbies. We sort of identify ourselves by what we do and I had been very involved with TDCJ for many years. Then suddenly, I didn’t have that anymore.”

Along with a salary, retirees currently working full-time for TDCJ are entitled to the same benefits other full-time employees receive, including health insurance, vacation, benefit replacement pay if applicable, and hazardous duty or longevity pay. A change made during this year’s legislative session freezes the longevity pay now received by retirees at current levels.

Mire said he came back to TDCJ because he wanted to stay in Huntsville so his 16-year-old daughter could finish up her high school years there. Other employment opportunities he explored would have required his family to relocate, he said.

McCracken also looked to remain in Huntsville where he has extended family, a mortgage, and a 3-year-old son with his wife of five years who is a stay-at-home mom.

“If my house had been paid for and some other things, I doubt very seriously that I would have come back,” he said.

Currie said she, too, may not have returned to TDCJ had she sat down beforehand and figured how much she would need in retirement. After traveling some and renovating the interior of her Huntsville home, she found herself short of money for the other things she wanted to do.

“There were just too many things that I wanted to do that my retirement just wasn’t going to cover,” she said. “If I had been financially secure, had set it up and planned it like you’re supposed to plan for retirement, I probably wouldn’t have come back.”

Currie, now 61, started out as a switchboard operator but spent most of her first 22 years with TDCJ in the Health Services Division. She now works as a receptionist at the Human Resources Administration Building in Huntsville.

“People have it in their minds that you’re drawing big bucks and you’re really not,” Currie said.

McCracken applauds TDCJ’s policy that now prohibits retirees from returning to the same position they left to retire.

“For me to have gone back to Training in that job, I wouldn’t have wanted that,” McCracken said. “There are people there who deserve advancement. They need to be given the opportunity, and when they do advance, somebody else can come up. I did not want to take a job that someone else who is still working and still contributing to the Employee Retirement System could take because that’s going to help them when they retire.”

Mire and the others said they returned to work for TDCJ not just to stay active, but to contribute something worthwhile to the agency.

“I think it’s a good thing to have these retirees,” Mire said. “They know the system, they know what they’re doing, and it takes off some of the pressure, especially for the people in gray.” In my case, I feel like I’ve contributed. I didn’t retire to come back and retire in a job. I’m trying to be a real contributing factor for the agency.”

Johnston welcomes retirees back with open arms.

“They have an excellent work ethic and maturity,” she said. “And they have chosen to be here when they have other options. Each day they wake up and make a choice to come to work. That in itself makes for employees who are happy and contented and feel like they are making a contribution.”

Oftentimes, Johnston said retirees can also serve as mentors to younger, less-experienced employees.

“In many cases, the retirees have reflected on the bigger picture of what they’re doing and where they’re going in their lives,” she said. “They’ve made their mistakes and they’ve learned from them. So a lot of times, they are excellent sounding boards for employees who may be going through it for the first time.”

McCracken expects to work five to eight more years while Mire said his second stint with TDCJ could last up to five years.

“Next time I retire, I hope it lasts longer,” Mire said.

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