The growing problem of long-term unemployment among older workers in the U.S. was the focus of a Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing on May 15, 2012. The hearing coincided with the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) release of a report that found the number of workers age 55 and older who have been unemployed more than six months has doubled since the recession began in late 2007.
“While Americans were hit hard by this recession, the ramifications for older workers were particularly severe,” committee Chair Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., said in prepared remarks. “Once older workers lost their jobs, they struggled far more than other groups to find work again.”
He noted that while less than one in four unemployed older workers were out of work in 2007, more than half of unemployed workers who were out of work four years later were over the age of 55 “and confronting long-term unemployment.” The hearing was titled “Missed by the Recovery: Solving the Long-Term Unemployment Crisis for Older Workers.”
Sheila Whitelaw, one of five panelists providing comment at the hearing, told of her downward spiral after the boutique where she had worked lost its lease. She was 71 and had worked there a dozen years, rising from sales associate to manager.
She applied for and received unemployment benefits and continued to seek work, sending out hundreds of resumes, attending job fairs and making cold calls to potential employers. The past two years have been “a complete nightmare,” she said, adding that she believes that she was discriminated against because of her age.
Many job applications require the job seeker to indicate date of birth, “and I suspect I am weeded out in that process,” said Whitelaw, who has a college degree and experience that includes serving as executive director for three nonprofit art organizations.
She quit putting the date of the boutique’s closure on job applications “for fear employers will see how long I have been out of work and judge me because of that.”
The only job she was able to secure was in a Philadelphia hotel gift shop overrun by mice, where Whitelaw sat on milk crates in lieu of a chair. She left after five days when she found mice droppings in her bag. Because of that job stint, she was denied an extension on unemployment benefits. She continues to look for work without success, she said.
Her husband, who has Alzheimer’s disease, is in a nursing home. Whitelaw said she lives on Social Security and $35 worth of monthly food stamps.
“I can work. I need to work and I want to work, but that seems far off right now,” she told the committee.
In Kohl’s opening remarks, he pointed to the Platform to Employment program, developed by panelist Joseph Carbone, as one that “shows real potential” for helping to solve the problem of unemployment among older workers. It partners with local businesses by placing older workers into internships.
Additionally, Kohl announced his support for the proposed Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (S. 2189), or POWADA, that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced March 13, 2012.
He referenced suggestions in the GAO report for rectifying the problem of long-term unemployment for older Americans. Those included tax credits for businesses employing older workers in flexible work programs—an approach that he said is addressed in the proposed Older Worker Opportunity Act (S. 145) he introduced Jan. 25, 2011.
Panelist Diana Furchtgott-Roth, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in Washington, D.C., disagreed with the GAO report suggestion to establish policies targeting older workers. Long-term unemployment is a problem facing millions of Americans, not just older ones, she said.
The report referenced proposed policies that experts the GAO interviewed most favored, including federal government-provided incentives to employers such as temporary wage and training subsidies to encourage them to hire older workers who have been jobless for 27 weeks or more.
Experts also liked the idea of the Department of Labor developing a job search assistance program for older workers that would provide training in basic computer skills, resume writing and filing of online applications.
“Such policies would needlessly set one generation against each other,” Furchtgott-Roth said.
“They rest on the false premise that the problems facing older workers are the result of discrimination or other factors that work especially against older workers and in favor of younger workers.”
She noted that the older age group had 47 times the net wealth of younger Americans in 2009, according to the PEW Research Center.
“The problems facing older workers in today’s stagnant labor market are not dissimilar from the problem facing all workers: lack of robust growth.”
Among the ideas she urged upon the senators were eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency’s new regulations on coal that affect the utility sector—a sector that she said “employs a disproportionate number of older workers”—and approving the Keystone XL Pipeline, which she said would benefit Americans in those states where refinery construction projects would be generated.
She spoke against the proposed Fair Employment Opportunity Act of 2011, which would allow the unemployed to sue employers for discrimination.
But the problem of long-term unemployment is compounded for older Americans, said panelist Carbone, president and CEO of The WorkPlace, a 30-year-old nonprofit in Fairfield, Conn., that operates three One Stop Centers for older workers in its region.
“They’re dealing with the stigma of being older. They’re dealing with the prejudice that comes with it, with the discrimination that comes with it,” he said.
Finding a job when you’ve been unemployed for a long stretch is “a challenge if you’re under 50; it’s a Category 5 hurricane if you’re over 50.”
Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP) in Washington, D.C., suggested public and private policies that take into account the problems that unemployed younger and older workers face. She urged passage of two pending bills—POWADA, which she said will help reduce the incidence of unemployment discrimination, and the Fair Employment Opportunity Act.
The latter would bar employers and employment agencies from refusing to consider or hire qualified individuals because they are unemployed, while preserving the right of employers to impose an employment restriction “where doing so is a legitimate criterion for the job in question,” she said.
At NELP they hear complaints from unemployed job seekers such as Whitelaw all the time, Owens said.
“This is a real problem; I wish we didn’t need legislation to correct it, but it is not self-correcting.”
Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.