April 24, 2005
55 + ... and looking for work
Special to The Seattle Times
CHAD COLEMAN / SPECIAL TO THE SEATTLE TIMES
Five months ago, right on cue when he turned 65, Larry Otos retired.
For the previous 50 years or so, give or take a few days off for vacations and sickness, he'd been a working man. But though he collects Social Security and is financially secure, Otos wants back into the work force.
So, apparently, do a lot of other folks who you'd expect, at this time in their lives, to be traveling or golfing or playing with the grandkids.
Otos was one of about 20 Seattle-area older workers who recently attended a monthly job workshop conducted by the city of Seattle's Age 55+ Employment Resource Center.
The center, which began in 1981, is busy these days trying to match up the older workers, who often have to delay retirement and continue working to make ends meet, and employers, who often dismiss them as too old to be useful.
Help for job seekers 55 and over
What: Age 55+ Job Club Workshop.
When: Once a month. Next workshop is Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to noon.
Where: Downtown Seattle, Alaska Building, 618 Second Ave., Elliott Bay Room, 15th floor.
Who: Sponsored by the Seattle Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens.
Information: www.cityofseattle.net/humanservices/ mosc
and click on "Age 55+ Employment Resource Center"
Otos has worked mainly as a general manager for homeowners' associations.
Much of his time was spent helping the elderly, which he would like to continue.
"For me it's a matter of being able to contribute, if I can," he says. "If I can't, I'll just be staying around (home) and mowing the lawn and picking flowers."
Otos was one of a handful of white-collar workers at the workshop, which had a roughly equal mix of men and women. Among them was a man who worked as a custodian, a couple of schoolteachers, a busboy and a former Environmental Protection Agency engineer.
"It's generally a mixed bag," says Alana McIalwain, the center's supervisor, about the people who usually attend the workshops.
Some, she says, like Otos, don't really need to work but find retirement boring and "work for healthy aging."
Others are forced to continue working because the cost of living is rising so fast.
"Some clients are working longer to pay for medical benefits, some are working just for their prescriptions," she says. "They're spending down all their assets. We hear that all the time."
But finding work is a daunting task for some, especially those who lack computer and interviewing skills. The center offers its nearly 500 active clients free classes and counseling to assist with these and many other concerns.
McIalwain says the center's other mission is to convince potential employers that older workers make good workers:
"Our people have so many skills, so much knowledge, and so much experience, that if employers will just think about that, they will be very well served."
Yet because of fierce competition for the few available jobs, employers who once regularly listed their openings with the program now don't.
And in head-to-head competition, younger workers often get the nod over seniors, despite the fact that age discrimination is illegal.
"Too much of it goes on," says McIalwain, who has been with the center for five years. "If you talk to 50 clients, I would guess that probably 40 of them would say that they feel they've experienced age discrimination in one way or another."
For now, however, with more clients than job openings, employers have the upper hand, despite the recent uptick in the local economy.
"There are more jobs now than there were three months ago," McIalwain says. "But the stumbling block is that they're not always paying a living wage. Employers still have the luxury of paying lower wages because people are desperate."
She says the average wage of the 45 clients who found jobs in February was $9.53 an hour, and that most are "tickled to have a job that pays 10 dollars an hour." Yet recent studies have shown that it takes $15 to $20 an hour to be able to afford Seattle's high cost of living.
Some people are lucky enough to have spouses who work, taking the pressure off to find work right away. John Zupa, 59, has a wife who works in the computer field, so when he was terminated from his sales job with a plumbing-supply store, he didn't feel desperate. He thought the employment center was just what he needed.
"I was thrilled about it," he says, "because they addressed the problem of age. That was my biggest fear. Through them or through some leg work, I should be able to land something."
While the center caters to workers in every profession, it is most concerned with clients who don't have a safety net. For example, McIalwain mentioned a woman who had a month before her unemployment benefits ran out and didn't know how she was going to pay the rent.
"These people are falling through the cracks," she says. "They're missing a link. They may be homeless for awhile and don't have the right attire. There may be legal issues. They may have no computer training. But just about anyone who walks into our office has a huge cadre of resources that they can take advantage of."
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