Philadelphia Woman, 73, Says Age Has Kept Her Unemployed for Two Years

PHOTO: Sheila Whitelaw, 73, said she has been looking for work "every single day of the week" for two years.Courtesy of the Senate Committee on Aging
Sheila Whitelaw, 73, said she has been looking for work "every single day of the week" for two years.

Sheila Whitelaw of Philadelphia is a college graduate and has managed three different non-profits as executive director. Whitelaw said one particular trait may have caused difficulty in her two-year job search: her age.

Whitelaw, 73, said she never had difficulty working or finding a job until she was laid off from a clothing business when she was 71 and had to look for work.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that about 4.2 million older workers were unemployed or underemployed in January 2011, and 3.65 million remained unemployed or underemployed in December 2011.

Whitelaw says age discrimination may be playing a part in her ability to get part-time or full-time work.

"I have really good credentials and a very varied background but have seen myself involved in age discrimination in the workplace," she said.

Unemployed, and with her husband, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, in a nursing home, Whitelaw's income is from Social Security benefits and food stamps of $35 a month.

She said she has sent out "hundreds and hundreds" of resumes and had 15 job interviews, with employers sometimes dissuading her from applying for various reasons, such as the physical demands of the job.

Whitelaw testified in front the Senate Special Committee on Aging on Tuesday for a hearing called "Missed by the Recovery: Solving the Long Term Unemployment Crisis for Older Workers."

"I feel very passionate about it because I don't get a chance to talk about it. I know unemployment is high everywhere but I'm not sure people are focused on the older worker and we have a lot to offer.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older from employment discrimination based on age, for both employees and job applicants. However, worker advocates say greater education and outreach is needed as employers continue to discriminate against the mature workforce.

While younger workers have had the highest unemployment since the start of the recession in 2007, older workers have seen the biggest increases in long-term unemployment.

By 2011, 55 percent of unemployed older workers had been actively seeking a job for 27 weeks or more, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The April GAO report stated that only a third of older workers displaced from 2007 to 2009 found full-time work by 2010. Those who did had greater earnings losses than reemployed younger workers.

"It's not just the number of people who are unemployed," said Joseph Carbone, president and CEO of The WorkPlace, a nonprofit based in Fairfield County, Conn., that has provided job placement services for 30 years. "It's the length of unemployment that presents the greatest challenge."

Older workers comprise about 35 percent of Connecticut's workforce and over 40 percent of the state's long-term unemployed, according to economist Manisha Srivastava with the Connecticut Department of Labor.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington, D.C., said it would be bad policy to have programs favoring one population over another.

She spoke in favor of "more job opportunities for all" with "older workers benefitting as much as" younger workers by providing "certainty to the tax system" for job creators.

Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project in Washington, D.C., testified that helping older workers is "not a zero sum game," and that worker advocates "don't want to pick winners and losers."

Whitelaw acknowledges that age discrimination in the hiring process is difficult to prove and few unemployed workers would take the time to pursue legal action over a job rejection rather than look for another job.

Whitelaw said she is not sure what kind of policy would prevent age employment discrimination, just that she hopes to get a job.

"Life is exceedingly hard," said Whitelaw, who is working with a social worker to find subsidized housing. "I need to and I can work."