By Lucy Pawle
|Jabir Elamin searches employment websites at the Department of Labor in Harlem |
(Photo by Lucy Pawle)
A short African-American woman in an oversized black coat, Harlem native Williams retired from housekeeping in 2004 after 32 years, but the cost of living means she needs a job again. The $930 Social Security payment she receives each month has become increasingly inadequate. “The rent I’m paying overrides anything coming in. It’s over $1,000,” she says.
But eight months of job-hunting has proved unsuccessful, which is why Williams is here. “I need help badly,” she says.
Her problems are not unusual. Around 2.2 million Americans over 55 are unemployed, double the number in 2007. That represents 15.7 percent of total unemployment, according to October data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. New York City currently has 8.8 percent unemployment.
While recent layoffs account for the majority of unemployed seniors, re-entrants into the workforce have also risen substantially and account for almost a quarter, according to an October 2010 Congressional Research Service analysis.
Older workers aren’t targeted in layoffs; in fact they are often the last to go, says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “Employers typically lay off people with the least seniority, which is more typically the younger people,” he says.
But the rise in job-hunting seniors is pushing up their unemployment rate. In some cases, debt has forced their return to work. Thirty percent of unemployed seniors have more credit card debt than retirement savings and 41 percent have as much, according to a November 2010 report from the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College.
Williams needs to work because of the rising cost of living. Her rent is “cleaning me out of everything,” she says, increasing $150 a month this year. Health costs and rising food prices concern her too.
Such issues are familiar to staffers at Single Stop, an anti-poverty program with two Harlem centers; it launched an initiative this year specifically targeting the elderly. “There’s a disparity between the flat-lining of Social Security income and the skyrocketing medical expenses,” says communications director Grace Lichtenstein. Single Stop monitors seniors’ poverty rate, which this year jumped from 9 to 16.1 percent when the Census Bureau began including medical expenses and other costs.
Older unemployed workers not only give up things that they want, but things that they need, says Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. “They are particularly hurt by giving up on health care,” he says, “and they also cut back on food and other essentials.”
Jabir Elamin, 59, walks into the Labor Department on West 125th Street early on a Monday morning. He got laid off in 2008, so he’s there three times a week to use the Internet for job-hunting “You’ve got to be proactive,” he says.
But the job fairs advertised on the department’s website have passed and Elamin has already applied for the one suitable position he finds. “No one ever got back in touch with me,” he says. But he writes down the contact details again anyway.
While seniors may not be the first fired, they are often the last hired. They take nine weeks longer to find work than younger competitors, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics, their searches averaging just over a year.
“There’s a lot of ageism out there,” says Maria Serrano, program director of the Senior Employment Program at the New York City Department of Aging. “There’s enormous competition with the younger workers, workers from other parts of America, and from all over the world now.”
Baker agrees. “It’s formally illegal to discriminate against people on age but people do it,” he says. “I’d be surprised if an employer was more likely to pick a man in his 50s.”
This isn’t news to Elamin. “I’ve found discrimination against my age on a daily basis,” he claims, “but I think it’s very foolish.” A licensed real-estate broker for 21 years, among many other jobs, he feels his age should count in his favor. “Experience is just as important as education and will sometimes take you further,” he says.
Serrano says technology presents the biggest barrier for older job-seekers. “Many of the seniors are not conditioned with the computer skills that are necessary,” she says. “We trying to help people to do the cross-over, but it’s a challenge.” The program had 1,200 participants last year and applicants have increased significantly since 2008. But this year brought 25 percent cuts in federal funding, “slowing us down a little bit,” Serrano says diplomatically.
These government programs are simply inadequate, however, for the problems seniors now face, says Van Horn. “Many are designed for short and shallow recessions. This is neither,” he says.
Elamin enrolled in the department’s program for four months, doing computer training while earning $7.50 an hour, 12 hours a week. But he has doubts about its usefulness. “I learned things that I hadn’t known before, but it didn’t get me a job,” he says. He blames employers who are “insensitive to the needs and to the values that the elderly can bring to the table,” not the Department of Aging.
Baker shares Elamin’s skepticism. “There just aren’t enough jobs,” he says. “So far as these programs can give workers skills, that’s good, but it’s just shuffling musical chairs.”
A lack of Internet access compounds the problem for many job-hunting seniors. Neither Williams nor Elamin has a computer, so they’re forced to go to the Labor Department office. But seniors’ job-searching skills are less sophisticated than younger workers’, says Van Horn. “Their use of social networking and Internet job-searching words is much lower,” he says.
Elamin uses the Internet regularly, however, to little avail. Wearing a three-piece brown suit with matching suede shoes and a trilby hat, and carrying a briefcase, he certainly looks ready for the office. “I am always prepared,” he says. “Always looking for an opportunity.”
He organizes his day with military discipline. “I wake up at 5:30 every morning,” he says. “I start out by researching jobs on the Internet, then I make face-to-face contacts with prospective employers. I spend the other part of my day researching about starting my own enterprise.”