For older, out-of-work residents, the future looks grim

Rough economy has pushed some into homelessness

  • Eve Prietz, an attorney, has been out of work for three years and has had trouble finding a job, due to her age and that she is over qualified for some jobs. Her savings are gone, and her lender has started foreclosure proceedings.
Eve Prietz, an attorney, has been out of work for three years… (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
January 22, 2011|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Kathleen Harwell can't imagine what life on the streets would be like for a 59-year-old woman with diabetes and high blood pressure, but she's afraid she'll soon find out.

After nearly two years without work and no luck finding a new job, the Laurel resident is on the brink of homelessness. She has run out of savings and unemployment benefits. She's too young for Social Security. And she's not the only one in this frightening fix.

A burgeoning group of older, jobless people — here and nationwide — have found everything they worked for over the decades snatched away by the sharp downturn and slow recovery. Laid-off workers in their 50s, 60s and older are facing grim prospects of finding a new job, the worst for any age group in at least five recessions, at a time when hardly anyone is finding re-employment easy or quick.

That has left these residents in a precarious state.

Baltimore's homeless-services agencies saw a 15 percent jump last year in the number of clients ages 50 and up. Calls for help to the United Way of Central Maryland's 211 line rose almost 9 percent among those older than 45 last year, compared with a 1 percent increase among all ages. And food pantries served by the Maryland Food Bank have noticed an influx of baby boomers, including some who were donors before job loss struck.

The Community Action Council of Howard County, which helps low-income residents of the affluent jurisdiction, is on track to see about 2,000 people ages 45-plus this fiscal year — up 50 percent from a year earlier. More older, out-of-work professionals are asking for the group's help because they have nowhere else to turn.

"They are not traditionally individuals who seek social-services assistance," said Bita Dayhoff, president of the Community Action Council. "So they wait until their situation is very challenging, and they're truly struggling, before they come to us. That's an emotional side of the impact of the recession that we see on a day-to-day basis in this age category as well, because they're really, truly surprised by the economic status they find themselves in."

Older workers aren't more likely to be laid off — job seniority helps protect them. But once out of work, the odds are against them. And many worry they are being shut out of the job market because of their age.

Nationwide, the average unemployed worker age 55 or older looked for a job without success for 10 months last year, the longest stretch on record. Also, age-discrimination complaints to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission spiked when the recession hit, jumping from 19,000 to more than 24,000 in fiscal 2008, and have remained at an elevated level ever since.

The out-of-work predicament only compounds with time, according to labor experts. "The longer you're unemployed, the harder it is to find a job," said Richard W. Johnson, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

"Workers 55 and older who are out of work may never work again," he said.

Johnson found that only a quarter of workers age 50 to 61 who lost jobs between the middle of 2008 and end of 2009 were re-employed within a year. For those 62 and up, the results were even worse, with 18 percent landing a new job within a year.

Rutgers' John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, surveying Americans who lost jobs during the recession, reported similar findings in a December report entitled "The Shattered American Dream."

"We are witnessing the birth of a new class — the involuntarily retired," the authors wrote.

This comes as nest eggs are smaller, with 401(k) retirement plans still dented by the 2008 and early 2009 dive in stock values. More than half of workers age 55-plus intend to keep working until at least 66 or never retire at all, according to a 2010 survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. A decade earlier, just over a quarter of people in that age bracket said the same.

An earlier-than-planned end to work can mean a hand-to-mouth retirement. Those forced by economic circumstances to start collecting Social Security at 62, the minimum age, get just three-quarters of the monthly payment they would receive at the full retirement age, currently 66.

Such pressures have turned minimum-wage, part-time jobs in a federally subsidized employment program for the 55-plus crowd into a hot commodity. Senior Service America, which oversees the program in much of Maryland and in 15 other states, is seeing longer waiting lists.

"The economy, the meltdown, has prompted more interest and longer lines," said Tony Sarmiento, executive director of Senior Service America.

Owings Mills resident Linda C. Wainwright, 58, got part-time work through the Senior Community Service Employment Program, helping other participants in Baltimore County with job leads. Her own job search had turned up nothing else in 2009, and her pension was too small to cover the bills.

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