Hikes around Shaver Pond used to be messy affairs.
Then Paul Mudar spent last spring and summer working part-time at Grafton Lakes State Park. There he cleared brush and put down stone along muddy sections of nature trails, such as the one that runs around Shaver Pond.
Pushing 70, Mudar worked three days a week at the park and earned minimum wage from April to October. He often came home muddied up, but he enjoyed the hard work. However, in spring, Mudar will not be able to continue that work at the park in Rensselaer County, which has over 25 miles of trails.
The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation last month canceled its annual contract with Green Thumb Environmental Beautification, the Albany nonprofit organization that employed Mudar. The state is facing budget shortfalls, and the contract was worth $1 million. The move put 150 New York senior citizens out of work.
“I’m out there busting my butt, and they say we don’t need you,” said Mudar.
For many seniors, the Green Thumb work provided them income that supplemented their Social Security checks. Parks’ contract termination is just one example of how job prospects for seniors are rapidly disappearing amid the recession, as government programs lose funding and retailers once friendly to the over-50 crowd struggle to stay afloat.
“All the stories are the same: They’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do. Are we going to go on welfare?” said Rocco Crescenzi, a Green Thumb field representative in Watertown.
As the nation’s labor force rapidly ages — with almost one in three workers expected to be at least 50 years old by 2010 — the recession is diminishing the supply of part-time work at a time when demand is increasing among seniors. The recession that started in December 2007 is also creating more demand for such part-time work by wiping out 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts.
Recognizing the growing demand, organizations such as the AARP and National Council on Aging in recent years beefed up their employment services for seniors looking for part-time work.
In 2006, the AARP created its National Employer Team, initially a group of 13 national employers that pledged to help Americans aged 50 years and older remain in the work force. The program has grown to include 39 members and two more employers are expected to join it in the coming weeks, including the La Quinta Inn hotel chain.
While many of the Employer Team members say they remain committed to employing seniors, the economic downturn is severely crimping their hiring abilities. Home Depot — the premier member of the program — on Monday announced plans to close 34 upscale Expo and other home specialty stores and lay off 7,000 workers. Other team members, such as AT&T and Pitney Bowes, have also switched into mass layoff mode as the recession deepens.
“It’s not like it was six months or a year ago, when it was clear who was hiring. Now you have to be very aggressive and have a very strategic job search,” said Edwin Redfern Jr., the national program consultant for the AARP Workforce Issues Team.
Redfern said the Internal Revenue Service and Staples are examples of Employer Team members who are currently hiring senior workers. He said the senior hiring prospects are best in the health care and education sectors.
CVS Caremark continues to hire seniors, attempting to help its employee demographics mirror its customer demographics. From the 1990s to today, the pharmacy chain has seen its percentage of employees aged at least 50 years old rise from 7 percent to 18 percent.
“We still continue to hire mature workers. We want to have the right demographic in our stores,” said CVS Director of Workforce Initiatives Stephen Wing.
However, Redfern said the pace of hiring is slowing at a time when Wall Street’s woes are driving many retirees back into the work force. Wing said some hiring firms that work with CVS are seeing an increase in job applications from seniors who are “just worried about the economy and wanting to make sure they can take care of themselves.”
Since the stock market peaked in October 2007, Americans’ retirement plans have lost trillions of dollars. For example, the 1,793 retirement plans in the Wilshire Cooperative Universe saw their median return plunge 23 percent during the 12-month period ending Dec. 31. Those plans reflect a combined $760 billion in assets, according to Wilshire Associates, a Santa Monica Calif. independent investment advisory and services firm.
“It’s forcing people to look at their income and go back to work,” said Redfern.
Reflecting seniors’ growing concerns about retirement security, the AARP in December launched its “Real Relief” Web site, which offers tips on protecting investments, cutting expenses and job search strategies.
Greater Capital Region employment experts said the area’s senior work force is not getting hit any harder by the flagging economy than any other demographic. The region’s unemployment rate in December jumped to 5.9 percent — the highest for the month since 1991. And for the first time since 1992, the area experienced a fourth-quarter job loss, according to statistics released last month by the state Department of Labor.
“No one is saying seniors are being hit harder than any other group,” said Dan Gentile, the executive director of the Capital District Workforce Investment Board, a quasi-state and federal agency in Albany that assists unemployed workers.
In December, the unemployment rate hit 9 percent in Fulton County and 8.7 percent in both Schoharie and Montgomery counties. At the three WIB employment assistance centers in the Mohawk Valley, walk-in traffic was up 40 percent for the six-month period ending Jan. 1, compared with the same period in 2007.
“A lot of those are going to be older as well, but I can’t give you a percentage,” said Gail Breen, the executive director of the WIB for Fulton, Montgomery and Schoharie counties.
Will be some hiring
Crescenzi, the Green Thumb field representative, said some regional state Parks directors have indicated they will hire some seniors previously employed by the nonprofit when the agency does its regular seasonal hiring this spring and summer. But as state Parks employees, they will lack Green Thumb’s labor protections, which prohibited park administrators from forcing seniors to work in inclement weather or climb up high ladders.
A third of the 150 Green Thumb workers affected by the contract termination worked year-round. The other workers mostly collected unemployment insurance benefits during the off season. Green Thumb’s labor arrangement dates back to 1974.
State Parks pulled the plug on the labor agreement after Gov. David Paterson’s executive budget called for a $16.9 million cut in the agency’s 2009-2010 budget. To meet that budget target, state Parks also reduced services at about 75 sites statewide for the winter. More reductions are expected for this spring and summer, said state Parks spokeswoman Eileen Larrabee.
The agency, which has 178 parks and 35 historic sites statewide, also reduced its state park police training program and increased rates on everything from campsite fees and Empire Passport costs.
Green Thumb recently launched a letter-writing campaign in which affected workers and upstate lawmakers have encouraged Paterson to restore funding for the park labor program. Crescenzi said he understands state Parks’ need to balance its budget, but, “They’re balancing the budget on the senior citizens’ backs.”
One letter to Paterson came from a Robert Elmer, a nine-year Green Thumb employee who had worked at the Fort Ontario historic site in Oswego. He said he receives $515 each month from Social Security “and really needs this part-time job as I am also partially disabled.”
“Now, at 70 years old, who is going to hire me,” Elmer wrote.