When she first got a birthday card from AARP, Shelly Labinger thought it might be a mistake. She’s always felt younger than her age. “One of the biggest shocks of my life was when I saw Bob Dylan on the cover of AARP magazine, I almost had a heart attack,” she says. “I couldn’t handle that one. He used to be on the cover of Rolling Stone.”
Labinger, now 68, has grown accustomed to that disconnect. It appears most often in her search for work. Since she was 16, she’s been working – as a telephone operator, bookbuyer, a seasonal tax preparer, a private chef.
She expected Social Security would pay more than it does.
For a while she commuted from Pacific Grove to Big Sur where she worked as the receiving clerk at Nepenthe’s Phoenix gift shop, but the work itself was tiring, requiring heavy lifting, and then her car broke down in 2011. That left her looking around the Peninsula and Salinas for work, showing up with copies of her resume at law offices, retail stores, doctor’s offices – anyplace. “I started going into businesses and said, ‘Perhaps you can use me and here’s what I can do.’ I wasn’t being pushy, I was just saying, ‘Here I am.’”
The search was unsuccessful, and although nobody ever asked her age or explicitly said they wouldn’t hire her because of her graying hair, Labinger has her suspicions. “Who’s going to hire someone that’s 75 years old? Who? It’s a joke.”
She eventually arrived at Goodwill as a client of a senior job placement program, then run by Jamie Dimaya. She was placed in a Goodwill store, organizing clothing in the proper areas – a job she was pleased to have. “If you close your mind to something, you’re not learning, you’re not growing,” Labinger says. “That’s the biggest cliche in the world, but I wanted to work, I enjoyed going to work. I just wanted to get enough money to be self-sufficient, and get onto better things.”
She’s since moved into Dimaya’s position, running a senior job placement program that’s now operated by nonprofit National Association for Hispanic Elderly, based in Pasadena. ANPPM (they use a Spanish-language acronym for Asociación Nacional Pro Personas Mayores) works with 500 partner organizations across the country to deliver services, focused on economic sustainability for older people.
“I want to get rid of the stigma of hiring an older person,” Labinger says. “People want to work. It gives a lot of confidence to an individual, that they are not just sitting around watching television.”
“This is not age, this is years of wisdom and knowledge.”
Many of her clients need some amount of new training, though she thinks of herself as more of a pep talk provider – she doesn’t do computer work, but encourages people to learn how to fill out an online job application, for example. And part of it is accepting real limitations of age.
“Of course when people come to me, here’s the whole agony of the thing. You look at someone who is 70 years old, and they say their last job was as a roofer, and they can’t do it anymore.”
Dimaya is an Army veteran who found himself similarly surprised to be jobless given his lengthy work history, which includes educating at-risk youth, a public works gig and serving as a home health care aide for his wife, who died of complications from diabetes. After she passed away, he got an infection in his spine that left him unable to walk for several months. (He still walks with a cane.)
After Dimaya healed, he thought the search for a new job would go fast. It didn’t, and he found himself sleeping in his PT Cruiser. He started collecting recyclables to turn in, but didn’t want trash in the car he was living in.
“Most of the jobs our people are finding are at a Walmart or food service at McDonald’s, but the problem is, the cost of living here – you can’t do it on $11 an hour,” Dimaya says.
Both he and Labinger talk about the calculation of benefits versus a better wage: A higher-paying job might mean no longer qualifying for CalFresh or Medi-Cal, so it leaves older people earning minimum wage or less, if they work part time. But even those jobs can be hard to come by, Dimaya says, despite anti-discrimination laws.
“[A prospective employer] sees gray hair, a little pouch here, or they see the cane – they think, ‘This is not the image of our company. We want a pretty face or a handsome tall man.’ People of color find it even harder.” (Dimaya is Filipino-Puerto Rican.)
He tries to get out in front of it, pointing at his gray hair: “When I take my hat off I say, ‘This is not age, this is years of wisdom and knowledge and experience I can bring to the job. This is someone who is not going to do crazy things. You want wisdom.’”