An age-old problem

Five years ago, Sybil Grant made a life-changing decision. Tired of New York's bitter winters, the then 59-year-old single mom and her four adopted children departed Queens for Central Florida, where she settled into a middle-class south Orlando subdivision.

Between her divorce settlement and the subsidy she received from the state of New York for her for the kids, her bills were covered. But she still needed spending money. So she went job-hunting. With nearly 30 years of experience as a certified nurse's aide, Grant thought finding a job would be easy.

It wasn't. For two years, she looked for work. She applied for openings across Central Florida, all with the same result -- nothing. The "we'll get back to you" phone calls never came. Even when they did, Grant was told the company had found someone more experienced or better qualified.

"I got discouraged to the point where I stopped looking," says Grant, now 64. But what was behind her apparent failure? Was her experience indeed inadequate? Or, as she now suspects, did her prospective employers simply think she was too old?

That's exactly what she says Florida Hospital said. "What they would tell me," she says, "is that they have younger people who will give more time to them." In other words, people unlikely to retire in the next decade.

With unemployment at record lows, the service and tourism industries are actively courting older workers. Disney, the area's biggest employer, directly pursues snowbirds with job pitches at annual RV connections. Fast-food restaurants target graybeards in their employment advertising. For retirees seeking such work to supplement pensions or fixed incomes, there would seem to be jobs aplenty.

If, however, they want something more than part-time, minimum-wage work -- something on which they actually can live -- the outlook is more bleak.

If you're over 50 and looking for a job, Washington, D.C.-based labor economist Marc Bendick says, you will face discrimination, whether you know it or not. It will take you longer to find work -- according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, about 20 weeks on average -- and when you do find it, you can expect to take a 20 percent pay cut.

With a possible recession on the horizon, says American Association of Retired Persons attorney Lori McCann, things look worse for older workers: They're the first laid off when corporations downsize. If indeed they can find new jobs, they'll likely end up like Sybil Grant: under-employed.

When she left New York, Grant was earning $22 an hour. Eventually, through a government-funded training program for workers age 55 and up in Florida called Green Thumb, Grant landed a 20-hour-per-week, minimum-wage "training" job with the Central Florida Red Cross. Even in a supposedly tight labor market, that was the best she could do.

Last year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received more than 16,000 age-discrimination complaints. Of those, roughly 20 percent reached "merit resolution," in which the EEOC found in the complainants' favor.

"Age [discrimination] is difficult to prove," says EEOC spokesman David Grinberg. "Employers have gotten more subtle." They won't tell a prospective hire that he or she is "too old"; instead, they'll say the company is looking for someone more energetic.

"Clearly," adds McCann, "with the economy doing as good as it was, people though that age discrimination must be a thing of the past." But that wasn't true -- EEOC claims didn't drop significantly during the recent economic boom.

And those EEOC numbers, Bendick and McCann agree, represent only the tip of the iceberg. In a study, Bendick sent out two identically qualified applicants to thousands of major employers throughout the country -- one age 32, one 57. "What we concluded," he says, "is that the older applicant was given fewer job opportunities 41 percent of the time."

Though the age-discrimination law applies to anyone over 40, most EEOC complaints come from people in their late 50s. That's the point at which, Bendick says, a person's annual income -- after a two-decades-long rise -- begins its descent.

"That represents a lot of things," he says. Predictably, it accounts for an increasing number of retirees and folks who, for whatever reason, desire a smaller work load. However, he adds, "A lot of it does reflect involuntary underemployment."

Employers discriminate, basically, for two reasons: (1) age-related stereotypes of older workers as feeble, absent-minded and unable to learn new technologies and skills; (2) and more importantly, dollars and cents. Older workers often have more experience and credentials, and as such warrant better pay. At the same time, they're also more likely to run into health problems, which a company's health benefits usually are required to cover. Younger workers, comparatively, come cheap.

That's why, Grinberg says, layoffs often affect older workers first. Recently, he points out, the EEOC handled an $8 million discrimination case in which a large, Arizona-based company laid off 350 workers because of their age.

But the financial aspect of discrimination also ties into the stereotypes. Simply put, employers don't want to waste time -- or money -- training workers who are likely to retire soon.

Not all older workers are planning to retire. With people living longer, many can't afford to walk away from work at age 65. For some, Social Security doesn't pay enough to meet their medical bills. Others simply want to keep working.

A 1998 AARP survey, in fact, revealed that 80 percent of baby boomers planned to stay active in the work force after the standard retirement age.

If you ask them, older workers think they're better employees than their younger counterparts. They don't call in sick when they have a headache; they don't go out all night drinking and show up late the next day; they don't get pregnant. They're not likely to change jobs at a moment's notice.

And that, says Gary Peck, president of the Fort Lauderdale-based Spherion Staffing Group, makes employers more friendly to them now than ever. "There's been an increase in willingness to employ these people," he says. "I think the work force is shifting that way."

Babs would beg to differ. On a recent Tuesday, I drove to Auburndale -- a bit north of Lakeland in Polk County -- to interview a gathering of perhaps a dozen Green Thumb workers. Members of the group ranged in age from just over 60 to nearly 80, were mostly white and two-thirds female.

Babs (her last name, like others interviewed, is withheld by request) spoke first. Two years ago, she applied for an opening with a prominent Winter Haven law-firm. Like Sybil Grant, Babs, now in her 60s, is a New York transplant, and thought her many years there as a secretary made her "super-qualified" for the law firm job. The personnel employee promised her a call, and Babs headed for the parking lot, only to realize that she'd forgotten her keys. When she went back into the office, she saw her application in the trash can.

"Why should these people have to work in McDonald's [or] be bag boys?" asks Pat, one of the more vocal members of the group. She worked in civil service for nearly a decade in Massachusetts but was turned down when she applied for a post-office job here.

The stories echo each other. Tom has several degrees in horticulture; he was offered a job mowing grass for what he considered to be peanuts. His previous experience in hospitality management, he says, went for naught these days because he doesn't speak Spanish. Francis owned her own restaurant and bar in Costa Rica, and still she was rejected here for even a hostess position. And so on, and so on.

Individually, they might sound like they're just whining. Collectively, however, they signal a problem.

"When most people get to Green Thumb," says field coordinator Herb Sykes, "they've gone through the mill. This is the last stop."

Three decades ago, Congress established the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) to provide training and temporary jobs to low-income seniors across the country. Nationally, 10 organizations, including Green Thumb and the AARP, receive federal and state money through SCSEP to pay those who qualify a minimum wage to work 20 hours a week for a nonprofit corporation or public agency.

That on-the-job training, along with vocational courses, is supposed to prepare seniors to re-enter the work force in two years. And, Green Thumb's website boasts, roughly one-third of SCSEP beneficiaries do just that.

For some, however, the age discrimination is too much to overcome. At least one person interviewed has been with Green Thumb for nine years -- no one would hire her and, Sykes explains, the organization doesn't have the heart to rip the safety net out from beneath her.

"[The nonprofits and public agencies] look at Green Thumb as a free employment agent," says George, 78. He works part time at a Lake Wales museum, but has been passed up several times, he says, when permanent positions came up.

"They think they're getting something for free," Sykes says. All of the seniors agree. Whenever positions become available where they work, they're passed over for younger workers -- though sometimes, they don't have the education their employers want.

Still, when Green Thumbs sends gobs of workers an employer's way, and the employer hires none of them, Sykes can't help but be suspicious. "We would like a solution," he says. "To find an honest employer who would be honest with the people that come in for jobs. [There is an] invisible wall there. Age is that [wall]. When it's invisible, you get discouraged."

Moreover, SCSEP is constantly under attack. Congress hasn't increased support for the training program since 1982, even to offset inflation. The program is desperately underfunded, and Gov. Jeb Bush is making things worse.

Green Thumb receives its SCSEP funding through the U.S. Department of Labor -- 78 percent of it directly, and 22 percent filtered through state government. Since the program's inception, Florida has simply passed that money along. But no more.

Starting this year, the state's Department of Elder Affairs will take greater control of the program, and make SCSEP funding available to any nonprofit organization. Green Thumb and AARP Working Options, the two leading SCSEP-funded organizations in the state, now must compete for their funding with other nonprofit organizations.

Most likely, however, the state's SCSEP organizations will decline to participate in the state program: The organizations simply can't meet the contracts' specifications, which require seniors to be trained for 11.5 months, then placed in a permanent job during the final two weeks of a yearlong tenure with the SCSEP organizations.

If the senior finds a job before or after that two-week window, the state withholds a portion of the funding -- perhaps more than 20 percent of the per-senior funds. And since the current SCSEP placement rate lies somewhere between 30 percent and 40 percent, the performance-minded contracts could devastate the SCSEP organizations.

As a result, Green Thumb stands to lose more than $1 million of its $5 million annual budget, and will have to lay off one of its seven field coordinators. More important, perhaps, the cuts will force as many as 240 seniors off Green Thumb's 1,400-person pay roll. "It hurts our ability to help people," Sykes says.

Sybil Grant doesn't have a gray hair on her head. With three teen-agers and an 11-year-old living with her, you'd guess her closer to 45 than 65. Her house is immaculate; religious paintings and church plaques have a place on the walls alongside family photos, complementing the preacher blaring from the radio.

Grant's not bitter, but she is concerned. In a year and a half, she'll have to leave Green Thumb and her subsidized job at the Red Cross. She doesn't know what she'll do then. But she's taking a computer course, and may yet pursue a career in interior decorating.

She likens the plight of older workers to that of the handicapped a few years back. Until employers gave them a chance, she says, they never saw what a benefit the handicapped could be. If employers give older workers the same chance, she thinks, they'll be pleasantly surprised.

"Bottom line," says EEOC's Grinberg, "[employers] need to judge [older workers] by their ability to do the job."

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