As older workers struggle to find employment, job training run by Easter Seals offers temporary part-time work

Tamara Steppes has worked since she was 16 years old. Until now. At the age of 55, the Portland resident is unemployed, having been laid off in November.

“I've never been unemployed before,” said Steppes, who fills out job applications daily. “I send out tons of resumes and don't get responses. I think employers can get younger people and pay them less.”

by: PHOTO: MERRY MACKINNON - Tamara Steppes visited a Portland WorkSource Center after recently losing her job. The 55-year-old has worked since she was 16 and has never before been unemployed.

Is Steppes' intuition correct that there is discrimination, based on the age of job applicants, by employers?

“Of course there is,” said Catherine Todd, who directs the Easter Seals Oregon Senior Community Service Employment Program. “But we teach our folks to look at their age as an asset.”

A federal program with a 60-year history, the Senior Community Service Employment Program gives job training to unemployed low-income adults 55 and older through paid temporary part-time placement in host agencies and through other development of employment skills.

Program participants earn minimum wage ($8.95 an hour in Oregon) for the work they do at participating nonprofit and government offices. At the Easter Seals facility, they are also introduced to computers and to resume and portfolio preparation to enhance their competitiveness in the job market. During their work week, clients are expected to continue to apply for permanent marketplace jobs, just as they would if they were receiving unemployment benefits.

“This program has ebbed and flowed,” Todd said. "During the recession, we struggled to get people into jobs.”

The median age of clients is 58. Some never made it past elementary school, and some have PhDs, Todd said, adding that the program has a waiting list for its current 92 participating paid workplace slots.

“We give priority to veterans," Todd said. “They have a higher unemployment rate.”

If Steppes can't find work soon, she said she might accept a lower wage job, but added: “I can't settle for minimum wage.”

That attitude is familiar to Todd. Often, Todd said, program clients have greater expectations for wages then is feasible for job seekers age 55 and older.

“They need to understand what a realistic employment goal is,” Todd said. “And sometimes they don't want to do that. More often than not, they're looking too big.”

On those occasions when she does hear back from a potential employer, Steppes always asks first what the wage is.

“When they don't list the wage, it's a sign they might be low,” said Steppes, who has experience in office administration and customer service.

Steppes is looking for a good-paying, full-time job and, so far she feels pretty confident she'll find it.

But, in time, according to Todd, if nothing pans out, Steppes and other jobless seniors should consider taking lower wage and even part-time jobs, and then use them as stepping stones to something better.

Lately, Todd's clients are having more success re-entering the workforce.

“With the economy picking up, we are seeing an increase in seniors going back to work,” Todd said.

For low-income job seekers

The Easter Seals Oregon Senior Community Service Employment Program has offices in Portland, Oregon City and Salem. For more information, call 1-800-556-6020.

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