Older workers can't get into job market

Sherri McClendon, 58, is looking for a stable job. She had a stable job until she was laid off over two years ago.

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Tess Vigeland: The job picture is almost as bleak for those on the other end of their careers. In fact, if you're over 55, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says you're likely to stay unemployed 30 percent longer than other workers.

Sherri McClendon from Chicago's South Side knows that truth firsthand. She's been unemployed since January of 2008.

WBEZ's Ashley Gross has her story.


Ashley Gross: For most of her adult life, 58-year-old Sherri McClendon has been the picture of job stability. In 34 years, she's had just four employers. But since she was laid off well over two years ago, she's sent out hundreds of job applications. She's even tried Burger King and Wal-Mart, with no luck.

At this point, she'd be glad to have just about anything.

Sherri McClendon: I never thought I would say that 10 years ago. Probably would have turned my nose up, but how humble we get. How very humble we get.

Humble, but practical. Sherri had been making $27,000 a year working at a call center for a health insurance company. But then came the ax.

McClendon: You know, they let us go and I called my sister, and I said, "You know, guess what?" And she said, "They let you go." I said, "Yeah." "Well, how much unemployment?" I said, "Six months." "Oh, you'll find something." I said, "Gee, I hope you're right."

Well, turns out her sister was not right. Her unemployment benefits ran out in March. She hasn't paid rent for May or June, and every visit to the supermarket has become a quest for the biggest bargain.

McClendon: Oh, got a sale going. I like to grab it when they have that two for seven.

McClendon heads out with a week's worth of food for $25. Outside, she bumps into a guy named Eddie whom she's paid in the past to help her carry groceries. She tells him as nicely as possible to buzz off.

McClendon: Get out of here, Eddie.

Eddie: Wish a happy birthday.

McClendon: Happy birthday, my man. Get out of here, Eddie. I ain't got it, my man. Take it easy, happy birthday.

You wouldn't know it to hear her, but talk to McClendon and you realize she's angry and dismayed at where she's landed.

McClendon: I got this stable work history, good resume, not too many breaks, you know. And then I had saw on the Internet or somewhere, reading or blogging or whatever, and kept running into this "older worker" category. And that's when the light came on -- I said, "Oh my gosh, I'm 55, 56, 57. I'm in that category."

Teresa Ghilarducci: What age is the worst to be unemployed? It's probably between 55 and 60.

That's Teresa Ghilarducci. She's an economics professor at the New School for Social Research. Older workers are less likely to lose their jobs compared with the population as a whole. But once they do, they stay unemployed longer than younger workers. Ghilarducci says it all comes down to how employers view older workers.

Ghilarducci: They look at an older worker as requiring more money, you know, higher wages, higher health care costs and the employer is bound to think that the older worker is not going to learn as fast or actually have higher productivity over time.

As for Sherri McClendon, she does have some good news: For the first time since a short-lived temp job in fall 2008, she has a place to go in the mornings.

McClendon: I usually push out at 8 o' clock, a little after 8:00.

She waits for the express bus that heads along Chicago's lakefront to downtown -- the first of three buses McClendon will take to her new part-time job. It's part of a government training program at a senior center.

Bus driver: Route 14, Jeffery Express.

McClendon gets $8 an hour for 20 hours a week to work in the kitchen at the retirement home. She says she's grateful, but wants something permanent.

McClendon: It's been really bad being off so long, not doing anything, you know. I couldn't imagine doing that for the next two to three years. So I'll be doing something.

And McClendon wants to use her skills to get back into office work. To keep them fresh, she takes an online typing test every other day.

McClendon: I post it on my Facebook, so you don't get lost into that "woe is me" kind of mindset, you know.

She tells the driver to have a nice day as she changes buses on her way to the senior center. It's a job she never thought she'd have, but like a lot of people in this economy, she's just grateful for a paycheck.

In Chicago, I'm Ashley Gross, for Marketplace Money.

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