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Help available to older, unemployed workers

By Staff | Apr 18, 2009

Losing a job at any age and through no fault of one’s own can be devastating. For an older worker finding new work can be especially difficult, but there is help.
For many older workers who have spent three or four decades in the work place — all the while increasing and expanding their abilities and knowledge in a particular trade or profession — a layoff may bring the realization that the field they know so well is on its way to extinction.
Learning different skills may become essential, and there is help available to do so. For the newly unemployed, the first step still should be toward the Unemployment Office at 4150 Ford St. Ext. in Fort Myers, or the Cape Coral Satellite Office of Careers and Service Center of Southwest Florida, at 1020 Cultural Park Blvd.
There, they can file for unemployment compensation. The first week is not covered, so the first check is only for the second week, but the following checks will cover two weeks.
The next step for many may be re-training.

Training and
a small paycheck
Low-income unemployed workers who are at least 55 and with poor employment prospects can get help from the “Senior Community Service Employment Program” (SCSEP) under Title 5 of the Older American Act. The program provides 1,300 hours per year of part-time training and community service with minimum wages. The goal of the training is that it will lead to employment in an unsubsidized job and the older worker will become self-sufficient.
For information, call Job Training and Employment Information at 1-877-US2-JOBS (872-5627). The caller will be asked for the Zip code of the area where he or she lives. The Web site is:
Unemployed seniors also can contact directly one of the non-profit organizations operating the program in their communities, such as the Senior Friendship Center in Cape Coral, located at the Lake Kennedy Senior Center, 400 Santa Barbara Blvd.
Kristina Rodriguez is the director of Community Services and Nutrition Services for the 11 Senior Friendship Centers in Lee County. She said they provide training in office and computer skills, restaurant service, interpersonal communication and how to get along.
The training for restaurant jobs takes place in the 11 Cafes throughout Lee County, where 600 free lunches are served each day to seniors. In addition to getting the free meals, they get to socialize, Rodriguez said.
“In addition to Cape Coral, we also have a Cafe in Alva, two in Lehigh, one in Estero, two in North Fort Myers, well, everywhere,” she said.
The people cooking the meals, serving them and working in other capacities are all in the Senior Community Service Employment Program.
Rodriguez praises the qualities found in older workers. She said of the 23 people working for her, 18 of them are over 60 and one is over 70.
“They are as reliable as the sun coming up in the morning,” she said. “They come to work, and they are great with the clients. They are patient, and they have a lot of life experience.”
According to Rodriguez, despite laws forbidding age discrimination, a lot of employers are guided by that date of birth found on applications.
“Employers and people who hire should look at the application and resume and weigh them based on the content and work experience, and not pay so much attention to the date of birth,” she said. “I have had more positive experiences with the older workforce than with other demographics of all other workforces.”

Other sources of help
AARP operates the same program with a grant from the Department of Labor; but in addition, more funding is provided by the AARP Foundation, according to John Randal, the regional director for AARP. The seniors must financially qualify to be given training and work assignments in community service for 18 hours per week, and they are paid the minimum wage.
“They receive real training,” Randal said. “The goal is to get them ready for a job.”
As of March 19, AARP started a second and similar program. The only difference is the source of funding, which comes from the Stimulus Plan.
“The Stimulus Program allows us to do exactly the same thing,” Randal said, “It is just a separate program for the bookkeeping.”
To receive an application form, seniors can call Randal’s office at the toll-free number: 877-366-9039, and the form will be sent by mail. Or, they can e-mail him at:
The documents will be sent via email or FAX.
Randal then makes an appointment with the applicants, and the usual location for this is at 4040 Palm Beach Blvd. in Fort Myers.
“United Way provides us with their facility,” he said. “It is a wonderful opportunity. I go to Fort Myers every three weeks and stay two days there so I can see the people I need to see. The main thrust is to help them get a job.”
The program has a time limitation regarding how long people can be involved.
“We try to get them the skills they need as quickly as possible,” Randal said.
Qualification of applicants is done through a “complex formula,” according to Randal. They have to be in the lower income bracket; the amount of Social Security benefits is considered; and some disabilities count while others do not. They have to be 55 or older and wanting a real job. Three other criteria have to be met, Randal said.
“They have to be able to work, they must want to work, and they must be actively searching for work,” he said.
In addition to helping workers, Randal also is searching for employers.
“I am extremely interested in employers who have job opportunity for seniors. They are wonderful workers, and if they have Medicare, they save the employer’s money on health insurance. The main thing is, we need employment. If it is part-time, it is fine. Sometimes we subsidize for two weeks.”
At the Area Council on Aging, which serves seven counties including Lee, the Elder Helpline provides information on resources available to people age 60 or older, according to Christine Welton. The toll-free number is 1-866-413-5337.
“We help in a crisis situation,” she said. “The request for help spiked six months ago.”
For anything the caller may need, basic information is given, whether it is where to get free meals or to get help with the light bill to avoid having the electricity turned off, according to Welton.
Seniors go back to school
Many seniors who have lost their jobs due to diminishing demands in their fields are seeking new careers in professions not likely to follow the fate of dinosaurs. In consequence, while many traditional jobs are being lost, training is increasing in other fields where the skills and knowledge required are not likely to become obsolete in the near future.
For instance, alternative energy and the currently being constructed and future “green buildings” require new skills be acquired in order to fill a variety of newly created positions. The Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., was created for that purpose, and one of its 50 districts covers Southwest Florida. High schools are also starting to offer classes to meet this demand, which is expected to grow.
The technical schools also experience an increase in older people returning to the classroom for a change of career.
“People will always be in need of food and medical attention, regardless of where the economy is going,” said Michael Schiffer, director of Lee County High Tech North, where the number of older students has greatly increased due to so many layoffs.
Teaching new skills is not the only goal of High Tech.
“We work with the employers and we help the students in finding jobs,” Schiffer said.
Students in their 50s and 60s have been seen at High Tech North in the past, but their numbers have greatly increased since the down turn of the economy and so many workers being let go, according to Schiffer and to Assistant Director Robert Fain.
“We have had a surge of students in all the 23 programs that we offer,” Fain said, “but especially in the medical programs. We started a quick nine-week program for Certified Nursing Assistant and it fills very fast. The Practical Nursing program has had about 50 percent more applicants for each of the three start times per year than we have openings available. Some of those students decide to go into the surgical technology program or the CNA program.”
Both Schiffer and Fain said the Medical Coder/Biller program is full, and it is also offered on the Web as a distance learning program.
“We have over 20 students taking it on-line,” Fain said. “We know that people need quick — but very good — training so they can get into new jobs and begin bringing home a paycheck. Unfortunately, when unemployment goes up, so do our number of students. Fortunately, we can meet the needs of most of the adult students who come for training.”
The increase in student population has not brought more government funding to the school, however.
“Both the state and the (Lee County School) District are struggling with their budgets,” Schiffer said, “but all our teachers are stepping up and taking more students. Our teachers have done a wonderful job just stepping up.”
High Tech North provides financial aid to students of all ages who qualify, and it is the better type of help, not “student loans” but “grants,” both state and federal.
“Yes, we do grants, not student loans,” Schiffer said. “It is a gift, it is money granted.”
Grants never have to be paid back.
To apply for grants, the students must go to the school they intend to attend. High Tech North is at 360 N. Santa Barbara Blvd. in Cape Coral. They must be full-time students, and age makes no difference.
“They can be in their late teens or 50 or 60 years old,” Schiffer said.
The students at High Tech North must meet the same qualifications that apply all over the United States to qualify for grants. When they pick up the application form at the school, they are also given a special link to a Web site. With this link, they can apply for grants on line, which is a brand new service, according to Schiffer.
When a student has completed his or her program — most programs requiring one year — the instructor can give leads to area employers seeking the skills acquired by the student. Schiffer emphasizes they do not get jobs for their students; the students must do the work to be hired, but they are given leads.
“We work with the employers, and we assist the good, promising students in finding jobs,” he said

Younger folks
hurt even more
Actually, there are two age groups affected even more by unemployment than seniors are, according to 2008 figures provided by Chris Cate of the Agency for Work Force Innovation in Tallahassee. According to the “Preliminary 2008 Data on Employment Status by State and Demographic Group,” while the Florida seniors 65 and over had an unemployment rate of 5.5 percent, it was 11.6 percent for the 20-24 age group and 15.6 percent for youths aged 16 to 19. For other age groups, the percentage of unemployment was:
– 25-34 years: 6.4 percent
– 35-44 years, 4.8 percent
– 45-54 years, 4.9 percent
– 55-64 years, 4.3 percent