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Retired Job Seekers Swell Unemployment Rolls

New America Media, News Report//Video, Story: Leslie Casimir//Video: Josue Rojas and Lesile Casimir Posted: Nov 26, 2008

Editor's Note: Many elderly people from minority and low-income communities are coming out of retirement to look for full-time jobs. But as the unemployment rate soars and the economy plunges, the timing for their job search couldn't be worse, NAM editor Leslie Casimir reports. This is the first in a series of NAM stories dedicated to ethnic elders in partnership with Atlantic Philanthropies.

SAN FRANCISCO -- After an eviction forced Jean Marie Green this year to move out of her rent-controlled home and into a more expensive apartment in the Sunset District, this 64-year-old had to rethink her retirement plans to make the $2,299 rent, almost double what she was paying before.

VIDEO: Meet Jean Marie Green.

So in recent months, as this country's economy continues on a dizzying downward spiral, Green has become one of many seniors now seeking work -- despite the unsettling era of layoffs and buyouts.

It has been no easy task: The labor market is tight and like everyone else, seniors are having a hard time landing jobs. Yet their fixed incomes and assets are drying up, so they have to return to the workforce in order to survive. "I know it's ambitious, but I have to do what I have to do," said Green, a widow, who since September has been a student at the City College of San Francisco in a one-semester certified nurse aide program. "I'm thinking very positive and I'm hoping [to find work] within a month or two."

Across the country, an increasing number of senior citizens find themselves no longer retired, just unemployed: They are scouring bulletin boards, flooding employment centers, looking for work, senior advocates and employment experts say. Part-time jobs for a little pocket change just won't do anymore.

For the first time, economists say they are seeing the unemployment rate increase among 65 and 70 year olds -- just as it is growing for people between the ages of 25 and 54, according to governmental statistics analyzed by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

For example, between 1988 and 1992, the average unemployment rate was 5.1 percent for people between the ages of 25 and 54. It was 3.1 percent for those 65 and over. This year, however, the gap shrunk, reaching 5.2 percent for younger workers in October and 4.2 percent for older people, a difference of one percentage point.

Statistics on how many senior citizens in the nation are clamoring for work is hard to come by. But current unemployment rates suggest that those being forced to go back to work in this recession are more likely black and Latino retirees who had low-wage jobs, said Richard Johnson, an economist who does research on retirement issues at the Urban Institute.

Historically, Johnson said, minorities tended to have more health problems and retired earlier because they often had more labor intensive jobs than white workers, he said. "Just how bad it is going to be for seniors [in this economy] really all depends on your socio-economic status and your age," Johnson said.

Billy Edwards, 67, a former construction worker who retired 10 years ago when he suffered a heart attack on the job, believes he is one of those seniors who is sinking deeper into poverty. "I'm just living off of Social Security and if I wasn't staying with my mom, I would be on the streets I guess," said Edwards, a Detroit native.

Edwards said he pays rent to his 93-year-old mother and contributes to household expenses, such as paying the heating bills. He also has a car to maintain. But Edwards said he would like to be able to afford a place of his own. To that end, he is seeking to reinvent himself in janitorial work and "hopefully as soon as possible," said Edwards, who collects $587 a month in Social Security.

"My car's paid off, so is my insurance, but I'm just living from paycheck to paycheck," said Edwards, who is African-American. "I can't do a lot of things I would like."

With little savings to begin with, Edwards and others like him are are just trying to hold on to their rent-controlled apartments or to their homes paid for long ago. "I'm just trying to survive," Edwards said.

At the Detroit office of the National Caucus and Center on Black Aged, or NCBA, an employment center where Edwards is seeking training, there is a staggering waiting list of more than 100 senior citizens who want to work full time. Last year, there were maybe 50 applicants, said Lydia Anderson, the program coordinator at the Detroit office of the NCBA.

"It's outrageous the number of seniors who are looking for jobs," Anderson said. "It breaks all of our hearts."

The ages of Anderson's job-seeking clients vary from people in their mid-50s to 65 to even 80 years old, she said. But they all share one thing in common.

"A lot of our seniors need work soon -- they don't have the time to do all the training," Karyne Jones, president of NBCA, a national organization that operates several senior centers throughout the United States. "If we could, we would place them in retail jobs. But retail isn't hiring."

Rena Bland, a 67-year-old retired bank employee, can't find a clerical position. "I've been looking for a job for over a year," said Bland, who rents a room in a friend's Detroit home for $200. "I try to keep myself on the upbeat but looking at the news or hearing 'no' all the time that is quite depressing."

Green, the certified nurse assistant student in San Francisco, doesn't see her future that way. Although she has been unable to pay her rent for the last four months, she has received help from her son, who lives in Washington, D.C. He now covers her expenses.

"It's scary, but to have help when you're trying to help yourself is one of the most wonderful things," said Green in a break room at San Francisco General Hospital, where she is receiving practical training.

Green, a petite woman with an elegant gait, said she believes there is a high demand for nurse aides and is confident the economic downtown will not have an impact on the care-giving industry. She also hopes finally to have health insurance benefits.

With jobless claims in the U.S. at a 16-year high, however, the reality seems a bit less optimistic. "Hopefully I will at least have a decent job and a decent place to live," she said. "Who knows, people are encouraging me now -- as old as I am -- to continue on, to do something else in nursing."

Leslie Casimir can be reached at lcasimir@newamericamedia.org

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