Federal budget cuts threaten senior job program

After working in the hospitality industry for most of her adult life, Jeri Deschamp was laid off a year ago.

At age 60, she hit the job trail in Rapid City and quickly discovered that hospitality jobs were scarce, at least for someone her age.

“The business is a very high-stress business,” she said. “But I loved it.”

Living with her daughter and barely scrapping by financially, Deschamp opted to join the Senior Community Service Employment Program in May. Through the program, she works 20 hours a week at the Dahl Arts Center. The job has allowed her to update her computer skills, earn a little money, make some contacts and keep busy while she continues to look for full-time work.

The Employment Program may not be around much longer for older workers like Deschamp if budget cuts approved in the U.S. House of Representatives become a reality.

The thought of losing the program right now worries Deschamp, especially with the job market still tight. “It’s frightening,” she said.

The Senior Community Service Employment Program is a federally funded job training and employment program created to help low-income older workers return to the workforce. To qualify, people must have an income of less than $13,613 annually. Most of the program participants are ages 70 to 90 and “on the brink of homelessness,” said Shirley Stuart, director of the program for both South Dakota and North Dakota.

Through the program, workers are paid minimum wage for 20 hours a week. They can stay in the program for up to 48 months but the average is 27 months, said Stuart.

Program participants work in libraries, schools, city offices and nonprofits such as the Dahl.

Last year, 930 seniors went through the program in South Dakota, working at 432 training sites throughout the state. They provided 350,700 hours of community service, Stuart said. Of the people who participated, 119 got jobs in their communities after their training, she said.

The employment program is funded with $2.8 million from the federal government and $540,888 from the South Dakota Department of Labor, which comes from a federal grant, Stuart said.

Stuart said the potential loss of the program would be devastating not only to the participants but to the nonprofits who depend on the workforce.

“It would be really a double whammy as far as this program being eliminated or even terribly downsized,” she said.

Craig Lewis, manager of the Habitat for Humanity Restore, would see that whammy effect.

“They’ve been a tremendous help for us,” he said of program participants. “As a nonprofit, it helps us save money because we don’t have to hire people.”

The Restore has participated in the program for the past two years, having as many as three participants working in the store at a time. “Right now, I don’t have anyone and I’m desperate,” Lewis said.

Of the people who have gone through the program at Restore, three have been hired full time by Habitat for Humanity. Others have gone on to other full-time jobs in the community.

“The one I had in the back (of the store), I just helped him find a job,” Lewis said. “One of the things we can do here is give them some job experience. … Then when they go out looking for a job, we can give them references.

“This is a good way for them to work themselves back into the workforce.”

Barb Evenson, Community Services director at the Dahl, said the program has played a critical role in the Dahl’s past and she hopes its future. Program participants were instrumental in the Dahl’s expansion in 2009.

Evenson said one program participant who worked at the Dahl had 40 years of experience in the heating and ventilation business.

“I got her to help in setting up our building maintenance system. There’s no way I could have afforded to pay someone,” she said.

Another program participant who had worked in collections helped deal with vendors.

“Again, how in the heck would you be able to afford someone with that kind of experience,” Evenson said. “Most of the time it’s been a pretty critical part of being open — for a public building with no money.”

The Republican-supported proposed budget cuts come in the wake of an election based largely on fiscal responsibility. Republicans promised early and often that they would create a leaner government.

Like most of her fellow Republicans, Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., supports the budget cuts, acknowledging that they aren’t easy.

“We cannot afford to borrow 42 cents on the dollar, much of it from the Chinese, and send the bill to our children and grandchildren. Spending cuts require strong and honest leadership in Washington and the reality is we cannot continue to fund programs, even worthy ones, with dollars we don’t have. Restraining our deficit spending will lead to private-sector job growth. That’s the key to growing our economy,” she said in a recent email.

Stuart sees that argument as flawed. By training people to return to the workforce through programs such as the senior employment program, communities will see growth, she said. At the same time, fewer people will require public assistance, which costs governments money.

“This is an economic stimulus for communities,” she said. “This is brand new money into the community.”

Evenson agreed.

“These are not rich people, and updating their job skills is the shot that they have … I don’t think it’s a frivolous program.”

Deschamp said the program has done more than just re-train her on the computer and provide a small salary. It’s given her back some confidence. She hopes those things will be instrumental in finding a job that will provide her with an independent future.

“I would just as soon work forever,” she said.

Contact Lynn Taylor Rick at lynn.taylorrick@rapidcityjournal.com or 394-8414.

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