A chart on spending cuts in The Washington Post yesterday erroneously stated that younger federal retirees will receive only half the cost-of-living increase in their pensions until they reach age 63. The correct age is 62.
I like to work, feel useful and know that I am making a contribution to society," said Elizabeth Bell, 59, a crackerjack executive secretary from Alexandria who lost her job earlier this year. "But I can see that people discriminate. They say, 'This gal can only work six more good years.' But that's wrong."
At least 12 local companies agree with Bell. Last week, they set up recruitment booths in Alexandria at the Prime-Time Job Fair for Northern Virginians over 55.
President Reagan, 71, also would agree. Earlier this month he endorsed legislation that would prohibit mandatory retirement from government and private-industry jobs based on age.
"When it comes to retirement, the criterion should be fitness for work," said Reagan in a recent speech, "not year of birth."
Virginia's older citizens are finding it difficult to find work, however. State officials estimate that 10 percent of Virginia's 220,200 unemployed workers are over 55. And many experts on aging say most unemployment statistics are misleadingly low because many older job hunters become frustrated and simply stop looking. They call themselves retired and live off pensions and savings.
Of these older persons looking for jobs, some have been riffed or laid off after many years of service, some have found pensions and social security not enough to live on, some have become bored once their children have left home, and some want to work not so much for the money as for the self-esteem and satisfaction of having a job.
Currently, under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, an employer in the private sector may not force to retire or demonstrate any sort of age discrimination against any worker who is under 70. In the federal government there are no age limits--an idea Reagan supports for private industry as well.
"Whatever company does hire me won't be shortchanged," said Paul J. Giordan, 65, a retired Uniroyal chemical engineer from Reston, while waiting in line for an interview at the job fair. "I give a good day's work for a day's pay."
Jean Parrish Jones, 58, of Alexandria, a former teacher who has been looking for a job for more than a year, called the situation "infuriating."
"Never in my life have I felt more able to do things," she said. "My children are raised, and now for the first time I can devote myself to a job wholeheartedly."
But the biggest problem now is finding a job--any job. The recent months of economic hard times and unemployment have been hard on the area's older citizens. There simply are fewer jobs to go around for people of any age.
"In addition to age discrimination, older workers are competing against many other unemployed groups," said Janis Rieley, a coordinator at Fairfax County's Area Agency on Aging. "And many times, for whatever reasons, seniors are overlooked and young people are hired."
Paul Drummer, president of Old Dominion Personnel Service in Arlington, said that in the past two years his number of applicants over age 55 has doubled. He said age is not the main problem: "It's that there are more of them looking now, and fewer jobs overall."
There also are few counseling services that specialize in helping older workers. According to a spokesman for the Virginia Employment Commission, their two local offices are "aware of the special needs of older workers" but do not have the manpower to single them out for special treatment.
Alexandria has the only special employment agency for residents over 60: Senior Citizens Employment and Services of Alexandria Inc., which cosponsored the job fair with the Chamber of Commerce. Arlington County has a staff member in its Job Development Service whose job it is to find work for county residents over 55.
The Northern Virginia Manpower Consortium, a federally sponsored project serving Fairfax, Loudoun, Falls Church and Fairfax City, is organizing a program to train seniors to fill demands in the labor market--in fields such as word processing, data entry, surveying and banking--but it has not yet started taking applications.
When job opportunities for seniors have become available, response has sometimes been overwhelming. A company called Wave III opened in Alexandria in January, offering free computer training for qualified applicants over age 55. More than 3,700 persons applied.
"I was incredibly surprised by the response," said director William Haybyrne. He said he was even more surprised when Wave III's parent company went bankrupt two months later, leaving him unemployed.
But Haybyrne, besieged by calls from disappointed applicants, regrouped and formed his own New Life Computer Corp. And the original class of 27 seniors is finishing the training in makeshift offices.
"The whole concept comes under an entirely different heading than the usual thinking about older persons working," said Herbert Avram, 69, a former government worker and class member. "Computers are interesting, challenging and pay pretty well. And it has nothing to do with charity or welfare." The seniors taking the course are convinced they will be able to snag lucrative contracts and make the idea work.
"I'm still getting over the shock of hearing that Wave III is out of business," said Betty Helliwell, 66, of Alexandria, who retired last fall after 18 years with the Navy. "I realized that retirement is just not me. I really still want to work, and need the money, too."
Helliwell and more than 150 other Northern Virginians over 55 attended the job fair, clutching calling cards and resumes detailing decades of experience as chemical engineers, teachers, homemakers and pilots. On the registration forms they cited education levels from grammar school to PhD's and past salaries of zero to $50,000. They asked for jobs as paralegals, chauffeurs, computer specialists or just "anything challenging."
Firms conducting interviews ranged from Alexandria Hospital and United Virginia Bank to the A, B & C Corporation, a computer and business forms company, and the FBI, which sent a recruiter looking for people to fill openings in its clerical and fingerprinting divisions.
"We are actively seeking older people," said FBI recruiter Isaac T. Willis Jr. "They are dependable, reliable workers."
Many seniors said they were disappointed not to find the City of Alexandria's personnel office represented. Personnel director Robert Burnett said the city's absence was an "oversight," that his office was very much in favor of the concept of hiring older workers, and that it routinely lists job openings with the city's special employment agency for senior citizens.
In the last year, the agency--a 14-year-old nonprofit enterprise--found jobs for 411 Alexandria residents who were over 60. Run by both paid and volunteer workers, it is the first such program in the area and is supported by city money and private donations.
Mary Ann Ormes, program director, said the agency tries to match what seniors like to do with paid jobs. "If they like cooking and children, maybe they would like to work at a school," she said. "Someone who likes golf might want to work at a golf pro shop. Seniors are good employes, and once a employer has them, they want more."
But she too agreed that the greatest problem has been finding employers who are doing any hiring at all. By the time the agency sponsors the next job fair, in about six months, Ormes said, it hopes to have more companies represented.
Job fair participant Irving Kleinfeld, 65, an Alexandria retiree who worked 36 years for the Veteran's Administration, said such job fairs provide "the biggest impetus older ladies and gentlemen have had to do something. It's meaningless to say, 'Get something to do' without something to offer."
Older citizens who need a job to survive currently can turn to a federal job program, the Senior Community Service Employment Program, known as Title V of the Older Americans Act. The City of Alexandria and Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties have 53 jobs available through the program.
According to Rieley, who administers the 23 jobs allotted to Fairfax County, the program was designed to offer supplemental income for older people and provide community service as well. She called the program "a very successful, cost-effective enterprise."
Rieley said she is concerned that the Reagan administration has recommended no funds for the program next year. Instead, she said, it proposes a new program that would supply training but no actual jobs.
Pat Frix, 63, worked as an outreach worker for the Fairfax County Agency on Aging for two years through the program, then was hired as a regular employe there. "It's a whole new ball game for me," said Frix, who had been on food stamps and Medicaid before she landed her job. "It has made me motivated and an independent person, not leaning on welfare. And it motivated me to start going to college. . . . If they cut this program, they are going to throw all those seniors on welfare."
Gertrude Weiler, 60, has held a Title V job in the Fairfax Department of Social Services for more than two years. She drives elderly persons to medical appointments, helps them with paperwork and calls their homes to check on them.
"My age really is an advantage here," she said. "I have enough experience to see what they are saying, and this seems to have a lot of meaning to them."
Weiler says the threatened funds cut frightens her, but the job has made her more confident and aware of her skills.
"I'm determined," she said, "to work until I am physically unable to do so."