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Work placement programs struggle to handle influx of elderly job seekers

By Michael Keller,

Kathleen Smith, a veteran teacher, planned to finance her retirement with money from the sale of her Arizona home. When it failed to sell after a year on the market and the bank foreclosed on it, she moved to New York City to be close to her youngest son and grandson and tried to find work. Eventually, she found her way to Partners in Care, which trains home health aides and places them with elderly or disabled clients. Smith, now 63, didn’t picture her retirement years this way.

Although employers have started to recognize the value of older workers, people past traditional retirement age who want or need to remain in the workforce can struggle to find jobs. They might have to tackle new fields, and they often find that wages in a second career are lower.

Maria Serrano, senior employment director for the New York City Department for the Aging, said the number of older people seeking work has grown in recent years. Last year, her office placed about 1,000 such employees, partly through its office training and job placement program for workers older then 55 with less than $25,000 annual income. The department pays $7.25 an hour during training and most commonly places older workers as home health aides or security guards, Serrano said.

But whether such programs can handle an increase in older workers is unclear. The department’s senior employment budget fell by $2 million last year — 25 percent of its budget — following cuts to such programs nationwide. The department says that it has made an effort to serve as many people as possible but that fluctuating budgets inevitably affect enrollment.

Smith’s experience is similar. She first came to the Department for the Aging in December, having registered for several similar elder-worker placement programs with no luck. Smith’s pension and Social Security barely cover her monthly living expenses. She spends just more than half her monthly income on diabetes and thyroid medications and health insurance premiums.

Although Smith graduated from the department’s office training program, she said it no longer matters that she can type 80 words a minute.

“People want Outlook. They want Excel,” she said. But department trainers “told us they weren’t going to teach us that, because they didn’t have the time.”

So the department placed Smith with Partners in Care. After three weeks of training, she placed at the top of her class on the written exam. Yet starting out as a certified home health aide, Smith has had trouble finding stable, weekly assignments. And she will not qualify for health insurance from Partners in Care unless she works 120 hours a month for two consecutive months.

But Smith says she is lucky to have found a program such as Partners in Care “that can get older people like me some sort of job right away” and can lead to other opportunities. She has interviewed for a more stable job as a home health aide on Long Island, hoping it can help her save $100 a day for five years to buy a house in an aunt’s retirement community in New Jersey. The job would pay $140 a day — but the Long Island Rail Road ticket costs $22 round-trip and Smith needs to be two years older to get the senior discount.

Asked whether she is optimistic, she laughed.

“Not really,” she said. “I’m [ticked off]. But what can I do?”

Keller is a News21 fellow at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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