Congress takes aim at jobs program

Becky Thompson of Sioux Falls turns 72 next month, and she is quietly grateful that she has a job working in the computer lab at Experience Works, an agency that helps older workers find employment.

Thompson had been scraping by on Social Security and a couple of tiny pension checks when she came to the agency. She knows how tough it is for seniors to find work, and she said she enjoys helping other job-seekers understand how to use computers.

At the same time, Thompson is developing job skills of her own and forging friendships with people she has come to see as family.

But now she and other older workers are worried that all this – the training, the support, the camaraderie – will disappear in the next round of budget cuts.

That’s because more than 60 percent of Experience Works’ budget comes from the Senior Community Service Employment Program, the only federally funded job training program for low-income seniors – and one of many programs targeted for reduction in the Republican spending bill that passed the House last month.

The House bill slashes the program’s budget by almost two-thirds, reducing the annual outlay from $825 million to $300 million. Congress still is hashing out a budget compromise, but if the cut stands, it could push as many as 60,000 low-income workers out of the program nationwide, said Shirley Stuart, state director for Experience Works.

This would be catastrophic, she said, pointing to a company study that says almost half of the program participants sometimes have to choose between buying medicine, buying food and paying rent.

“We’re not social workers, but we do a lot of social work,” said participant Marv Kjergaard, who works in the office.

“I feel blessed, but I also feel forced to be here,” he said. “You just can’t make it out there.”

President Obama’s proposed budget for this year would roll back the program’s money to the 2008 level of $600 million – still a significant setback, Stuart said, but not as debilitating. Next year promises more of the same, with the White House budget proposal for fiscal year 2012 reducing the payment by 45 percent.

The program pays low-income seniors to volunteer at local nonprofit agencies, with the eventual goal of unsubsidized employment. It’s a win-win situation, Stuart said: Unemployed seniors get needed job training and a little supplemental income, and nonprofits get free help, reducing their overhead.

For Thompson, it’s simply a lifeline.

“The added income has helped greatly. If this (program) were to get cut or get cut down, it would just be devastating,” she said.

Nonprofits benefit from older workers

Local nonprofit agencies also are worried about the cuts.

At the thrift store at Eighth Street and Nesmith Avenue owned by Volunteers of America-Dakotas, Director Deb Johnson said she has come to rely on her three Experience Works employees, whom she said are more dependable and loyal than the average worker.

“That’s 18 hours a week just given to us,” she said. “We’ve never had that money in our budget.”

“You can leave them to work independently, because they have that work history,” she added. Statewide, Volunteers of America-Dakotas has nine workers paid through the program.

Across town at Y’s Buys, Director of Operations Mike Schatz said the cuts would affect him, too.

“If I can, if I have a position, I hire them,” he said. Right now, he has three employees placed by Experience Works.

Added $2.8M to S.D. economy

In program year 2010, which runs to the end of June, 930 people took advantage of the program in South Dakota, adding $2.8 million to local economies and contributing 350,700 hours of community service, Stuart said. The one-year retention rate for these employees is more than 80 percent, she said.

The company’s budget in South Dakota in 2010, including one-time stimulus dollars, was just shy of $5 million. The money flows in two streams: one directly from the federal Department of Labor, another through a block grant administered by the state labor department. The bulk of the money goes to Experience Works, but some also goes to the National Indian Council on Aging, said Todd Kolden, an administrator for the state Department of Labor.

Applicants must be 55 or older. The cutoff for income eligibility is 125 percent of the poverty level. Lately, Kjergaard said, many of the applicants have been in the 55-62 age range – old enough that it’s hard to find work but too young to qualify for Medicare or Social Security.

At 56, Jerome Muturutsa just qualifies. Muturutsa came to Sioux Falls from the Democratic Republic of Congo three years ago.

“In my country, I was a teacher, a pastor, a principal,” he said.

But the transition to the American work force has been difficult, not only because of his age, but also because he has struggled to learn English. One employer let him go because he said he worked too slowly.

His fellow participants, however, attest to his desire to learn – he’s taking extra English classes at night – and said his time at Experience Works and St. Vincent de Paul has drawn him out of his shell.

Indeed, said participant Donna Bain, encouraging older workers to develop a stronger sense of self-worth is half the point.

“We each have a lot to offer the community,” she said.

The program also is vital to Loretta Silcott, who had to quit her job years ago when her mother died and her father had a stroke.

“It’s helped me with the Social Security and all the expenses I had. It really helped me,” she said.

Reach Cody Winchester at 331-2320.

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