More Senior Citizens Seeking Jobs, Local Groups Find

By Susan E White
The Virginian-Pilot

May 3, 2006

With rents and property taxes increasing, along with medical costs and gas prices, many retirees are re-entering the work force to make ends meet.

Across South Hampton Roads, more senior citizens are searching for jobs because they can no longer afford not to work.

“I’m talking to one lady now who has gotten behind in her rent, and she’s desperate for work,” said Elizabeth Robertson, employment director for Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia. “She’s about a week away from eviction, and she’s panicking.”

Retirees used to dream of settling back and living off nest eggs. For some, that’s no longer enough, said Barbara Murphy, project director for the Norfolk-based AARP Foundation’s Senior Community Service Employment Program.

“If you want to keep your home, pay for your medication or have any type of life, you have to work,” Murphy said.

Tracking those who have re-entered the labor market isn’t easy.

“What we do know is that older workers are staying in their current jobs longer as a result of financial uncertainty,” said Sara Rix, national AARP senior policy adviser.

Some return to work because they miss their jobs or want to stay physically and socially active.

The U.S. Labor Department reports that more than 5 million adults age 65 and older worked last year, or about 15 percent of all senior citizens.

In 2004, 4.8 million worked, or about 14 percent of senior citizens nationwide. Regionally, groups that help senior citizens find jobs said more retirees are seeking their services.

Last year, the AARP senior employment service received almost 500 applications for help – an 11 percent increase from 2004. The federally funded program is for people age 55 and older with low incomes.

Although 127 were placed in jobs, most were referred elsewhere because they earned too much money. Generally, the income limit to qualify for help is about $12,000 a year.

“There are people who are still hurting who are middle- class,” Murphy said.

When Frank Hodgin of Norfolk thought of his retirement years, he envisioned leisurely trips to Florida and California. Those plans changed after the shipping and receiving company where he had worked for 44 years was bought out.

Hodgin, 71, was among a group of employees who were let go.

Today, he works part time as an administrative assistant with a center that focuses on small business development.

He is grateful for his new minimum-wage job, but there isn’t a lot of money left over at the end of the month, he said. He earns about $950 a month, including Social Security.

“You don’t get to go to the grocery store like you want to,” he said. “You wait until peanut butter goes on sale, and the same thing with milk. I like a Coke every now and then, but I can’t afford $4 for a 12-pack.”

Hodgin said he would be in worse financial shape had he not paid off his mortgage a few years ago. The assessment on his home in River Oaks has skyrocketed 73 percent in the past few years to $138,000. Hodgin participates in Norfolk’s senior tax relief program.

Still, he said, he probably will use a credit card to pay off the $800 he owes this year in homeowner’s insurance. “I never thought the cost of living would go up as much as it has,” he said. “I really don’t know how some adults are making it.”

More employers are recognizing the value of hiring senior citizens , Murphy said.

“They’re reliable, and they have a work ethic,” she said. “As you get older, you may get aches and pains, but that’s expected and you know you still go to work every day.”

Still, for some who retire early, going back to work can reduce Social Security benefits, depending on earnings.

Anna Harris of Chesapeake is weighing those concerns now. Harris, 61, retired from a Chicago company in 2000 and moved to Hampton Roads several years ago. She now works full time as a customer relations specialist for Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Hampton Roads.

The extra income helps cover her monthly rent and prescription medicine. W hen Social Security kicks in this summer, though, she probably will cut back her hours. Quitting altogether, she said, isn’t an option.

“I once thought I could live off my retirement,” she said. “Wrong, wrong, wrong! You have to think ahead. Make sure your home is paid off or that you’re in an apartment you can afford. You have to be financially stable.”