Qualified 73-year-old faces age discrimination, can't find work

Sheila Whitelaw, a 73-year-old from Philadelphia, was laid off from a clothing business when she was 71. She has been looking for work ever since and has yet to be hired anywhere. She is a college graduate and has managed three different non-profits as executive director. She has never had trouble finding a job before.

Whitelaw believes age discrimination is the reason she has not been able to find work.

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

Whitelaw’s husband suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and lives in a nursing home. Her income is comprised of Social Security checks and food stamps worth $35 per month.

Over the past two years, Whitelaw has sent out “hundreds and hundreds” of resumes. She has been on 15 job interviews, but none have led to a position. She says employers sometimes dissuade her from applying to jobs because of various reasons, such as physical demands on the job.

She had the opportunity to speak at the Senate Special Committee on Aging 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,” she says.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects both employees and job applicants who are 40 years of age or older from employment discrimination based on age.

Whitelaw realizes that age discrimination within the hiring process is difficult to prove. Few unemployed workers pursue legal action on age discrimination.

Whitelaw says she is not certain what policy would prevent age employment discrimination. She only says, “”Life is exceedingly hard. I need to and I can work.” She is working with a social worker to find subsidized housing.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that 3.65 million older workers were unemployed or underemployed in December 2011. Younger workers have had the highest unemployment rate since the beginning of the recession in 2007, but older workers have had the biggest increases in long-term unemployment. In addition, only one-third of older workers who lost their jobs from 2007 to 2009 found full-time work by 2010. The ones who did find work, had greater earnings losses than reemployed younger workers.