Sitting in the waiting room on the fourth floor of the New York Department of Human Resources in Harlem, Mozel Williams, 77, is applying for food stamps for the first time in her life. “I was always able to provide for myself. This is the first time I’ve had to apply for anything,” she says, her eyes watering. Pulling a handkerchief from her pocket, she takes off her glasses and wipes away tears.
A short African-American woman in an oversized black coat, Harlem native Williams retired from housekeeping in 2004 after 32 years, but the cost of living means she needs a job again. The $930 Social Security payment she receives each month has become increasingly inadequate. “The rent I’m paying overrides anything coming in. It’s over $1,000,” she says.
But eight months of job-hunting has proved unsuccessful, which is why Williams is here. “I need help badly,” she says.
Her problems are not unusual. Around 2.2 million Americans over 55 are unemployed, double the number in 2007. That represents 15.7 percent of total unemployment, according to October data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. New York City currently has 8.8 percent unemployment.
While recent layoffs account for the majority of unemployed seniors, re-entrants into the workforce have also risen substantially and account for almost a quarter, according to an October 2010 Congressional Research Service analysis.
Older workers aren’t targeted in layoffs; in fact they are often the last to go, says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “Employers typically lay off people with the least seniority, which is more typically the younger people,” he says.
But the rise in job-hunting seniors is pushing up their unemployment rate. In some cases, debt has forced their return to work. Thirty percent of unemployed seniors have more credit card debt than retirement savings and 41 percent have as much, according to a November 2010 report from the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College.
Williams needs to work because of the rising cost of living. Her rent is “cleaning me out of everything,” she says, increasing $150 a month this year. Health costs and rising food prices concern her too.
Such issues are familiar to staffers at Single Stop, an anti-poverty program with two Harlem centers; it launched an initiative this year specifically targeting the elderly. “There’s a disparity between the flat-lining of Social Security income and the skyrocketing medical expenses,” says communications director Grace Lichtenstein. Single Stop monitors seniors’ poverty rate, which this year jumped from 9 to 16.1 percent when the Census Bureau began including medical expenses and other costs.
Older unemployed workers not only give up things that they want, but things that they need, says Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. “They are particularly hurt by giving up on health care,” he says, “and they also cut back on food and other essentials.”
Jabir Elamin, 59, walks into the Labor Department on West 125th Street early on a Monday morning. He got laid off in 2008, so he’s there three times a week to use the Internet for job-hunting “You’ve got to be proactive,” he says.
But the job fairs advertised on the department’s website have passed and Elamin has already applied for the one suitable position he finds. “No one ever got back in touch with me,” he says. But he writes down the contact details again anyway.
While seniors may not be the first fired, they are often the last hired. They take nine weeks longer to find work than younger competitors, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics, their searches averaging just over a year.
“There’s a lot of ageism out there,” says Maria Serrano, program director of the Senior Employment Program at the New York City Department of Aging. “There’s enormous competition with the younger workers, workers from other parts of America, and from all over the world now.”
Baker agrees. “It’s formally illegal to discriminate against people on age but people do it,” he says. “I’d be surprised if an employer was more likely to pick a man in his 50s.”
This isn’t news to Elamin. “I’ve found discrimination against my age on a daily basis,” he claims, “but I think it’s very foolish.” A licensed real-estate broker for 21 years, among many other jobs, he feels his age should count in his favor. “Experience is just as important as education and will sometimes take you further,” he says.
Serrano says technology presents the biggest barrier for older job-seekers. “Many of the seniors are not conditioned with the computer skills that are necessary,” she says. “We trying to help people to do the cross-over, but it’s a challenge.” The program had 1,200 participants last year and applicants have increased significantly since 2008. But this year brought 25 percent cuts in federal funding, “slowing us down a little bit,” Serrano says diplomatically.
These government programs are simply inadequate, however, for the problems seniors now face, says Van Horn. “Many are designed for short and shallow recessions. This is neither,” he says.
Elamin enrolled in the department’s program for four months, doing computer training while earning $7.50 an hour, 12 hours a week. But he has doubts about its usefulness. “I learned things that I hadn’t known before, but it didn’t get me a job,” he says. He blames employers who are “insensitive to the needs and to the values that the elderly can bring to the table,” not the Department of Aging.
Baker shares Elamin’s skepticism. “There just aren’t enough jobs,” he says. “So far as these programs can give workers skills, that’s good, but it’s just shuffling musical chairs.”
A lack of Internet access compounds the problem for many job-hunting seniors. Neither Williams nor Elamin has a computer, so they’re forced to go to the Labor Department office. But seniors’ job-searching skills are less sophisticated than younger workers’, says Van Horn. “Their use of social networking and Internet job-searching words is much lower,” he says.
Elamin uses the Internet regularly, however, to little avail. Wearing a three-piece brown suit with matching suede shoes and a trilby hat, and carrying a briefcase, he certainly looks ready for the office. “I am always prepared,” he says. “Always looking for an opportunity.”
He organizes his day with military discipline. “I wake up at 5:30 every morning,” he says. “I start out by researching jobs on the Internet, then I make face-to-face contacts with prospective employers. I spend the other part of my day researching about starting my own enterprise.”
Many unsuccessful job seekers end up living with family in multi-generational apartments. Elamin lived with his mother before she had a stroke. Megan Sergi, Single Stop’s uptown director, says this can put a further strain on seniors. “Sometimes their Social Security is the sole provider for paying the rent or supporting the grandchild,” she explains.
For some the strain proves too much. “I’ve seen people as old as 75 trying to find work,” Elamin says. “It’s outrageous and absurd. They shouldn’t have to be looking for it!”
Williams clearly feels the same. “Do you think I should be working at this age?” she simply asks, raising her eyebrow.
Older workers’ horizons are shorter, Van Horn adds, and “the financial and psychological blows they’re taking at that age are harder to recover from. When you’re in your 20s or 30s you’ve got your whole life still ahead.”
What Elamin misses most about his old life is the recreation he could afford. “I used to buy books every week and had quite an extensive library. I can’t do that now,” he says. “I used to love going to shows and concerts but I don’t do that any more either.”
Unsurprisingly, 35 percent of the city’s seniors say their single biggest concern is finances and employment, according to an AARP 2010 survey. Elamin isn’t destitute – he’s better off than many — but his fruitless search for work has had a clear emotional impact.
“It’s frustrating and it’s humiliating because I’ve worked all my life. When this happens and you’re not working it affects you, emotionally and spiritually,” he says. “Because you can’t function properly.”
With the unemployment rate uptown usually double the city’s average, the horizon looks grim for people like Elamin, lacking a college degree, or Williams, without even a high-school diploma.
“The unemployment rate by education is huge,” Baker says. He says their best bet is restaurants and retail, two expanding low-skilled sectors that offer just above the minimum wage. But, he acknowledges “it’s going to be very, very hard for those people.”
Nevertheless, Elamin feels optimistic. “I’m going to be in sales as an independent contractor,” he says confidently.
By setting out as an entrepreneur, he may be wise. The 1.5 million jobs being created a year only accommodate those entering the workforce. “It doesn’t help with the enormous backlog of those who are already unemployed,” Baker says.
Weeks earlier, Elamin was displaying the contents of his briefcase filled with bottles of perfume and stacks of make-up. “I’m thinking about the retail selling of cosmetics and selling them on the Internet,” he said. “I’m also thinking of starting a consulting business.”
Now he says he will probably join an existing “telecommunications energy service company” as an independent representative. “I’ve got a meeting in December and I expect I’ll be working with them early in the new year,” he says.
But today, after an hour at the Labor Department, he gives up. He’s searched four websites for work without any luck and leaves before his allotted time is up. “It’s like searching for gold,” he says. But he’ll be back later this week, just in case.