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Age bias, lower pay big challenges for older job-hunters

John Fugazzie created a networking group for the jobless; since then, he himself has become unemployed.

Richard Perry/New York Times

John Fugazzie created a networking group for the jobless; since then, he himself has become unemployed.

RIDGEWOOD, N.J. — In September 2012, it appeared the world was John Fugazzie’s frozen oyster. He was in charge of dairy and frozen foods for the A&P supermarket chain, making $125,000 a year.

He was also a guest that month at a White House forum on joblessness, in recognition of his work creating Neighbors-helping-Neighbors USA, a volunteer networking organization with 28 chapters in New Jersey serving about 1,200 unemployed, mainly white-collar, baby boomers.

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“John has one of the best volunteer organizations out there,” said Ben Seigel, a deputy director at the Labor Department. “He’s tireless and always upbeat.”

Lately, Fugazzie has been feeling a little weary and beat down. One morning last October, just before his 57th birthday, he was laid off and, carrying a box of belongings from his office, driven home by a car service hired by the company.

In the 10 months since, he has applied for more than 400 positions and had 10 interviews, but still has no job.

He and his family are living in his 88-year-old mother’s home, and last month he awoke at 4:30 a.m., sweating profusely, in the midst of a heart attack.

As happens to many Americans, when he lost his job, he lost his health insurance. He now owes $171,569.44 for the six nights he spent at the hospital.

And so on the evening of Aug. 15, at a meeting of the job club he himself started here two years ago, he told the others he was just like them.

“I need a job,” he said. “I need to make money now.”

Most of the 15 men and women meeting at the library in this prosperous suburb were middle-aged or older, people who had worked all of their lives. But they lost jobs in the recession and its aftermath and have not been able to get back to where they were. Many of them worry they never will — in part because of discrimination by employers against older workers.

On the statistical surface, boomers seem better off than other age groups. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for workers 55 to 64 (the category that best matches boomers, who range from 48 to 67) was 5.4 percent in July, compared with 7.4 percent for the general population.

But almost every other number from the bureau makes it clear that while the economy may be improving, a substantial number of older workers who lost jobs — even those lucky enough to be reemployed — are still suffering.

Two-thirds in that age group who found work again are making less than they did in their previous job; their median salary loss is 18 percent, compared with a 6.7 percent drop for 20- to 24-year-olds.

The reemployment rate for 55- to 64-year-olds is 47 percent, and 24 percent for those over 65, compared with 62 percent for 20- to 54-year-olds.

And finding another job takes far longer: 46 weeks for boomers, compared with 20 weeks for 16- to 24-year-olds.

Nor are those who believe age discrimination was a factor likely to have much luck in court.

In 2009, just as the economy was hitting rock-bottom, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that toughened the standard for proving bias.

“It’s easier for younger workers to bounce back,” said Seigel, of the Labor Department. “They don’t have many financial obligations. Older workers are supporting families; they may be supporting parents. They can’t afford to spend two years going back for a degree to retrain.”

At the Aug. 15 meeting, Barbara Braun, who worked as a marketing director for a pharmaceutical company, said she was not able to relocate to California when the company moved.

“I have a mother with Alzheimer’s; I think it would have killed her,” she said. “Our lives are full of complications we didn’t have at 35.”

They have no doubt that their age is held against them, yet work to keep hopeful. When a woman suggested shaving a decade off her résumé and not posting a photo on networking and job-search sites to hide her age, Fugazzie advised against it.

“When you go to the interview, you’re going to look like who you are,” he said. “To waste time hiding it when you’re only going to lose at the other end makes no sense. If they don’t want someone your age, you don’t want them.”

What he does recommend is lowering the expectations.

“You’re not likely to be the department head,” he said, “so sell yourself as a team player who will work with younger people and help train them.”

Since the Supreme Court ruling, most lawyers will not even take age-discrimination cases. In an effort to change that, a bill has been filed in the Senate each of the past several years, aimed at making it easier to bring a discrimination lawsuit. The latest legislation has rare bipartisan support; Senators Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, and Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, are cosponsors.

“Older Americans have immense value to our society and our economy,” Grassley said in a recent news release. “They deserve the protections Congress originally intended.”

In the last Congress, along with the Democratic majority in the Senate, six Republicans backed the legislation, although two, both moderates, Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts, are no longer in the Senate.

Cristina Martin-Firvida, a legislative specialist at AARP, says the bill has the votes to pass the Senate, but to have a chance at becoming law, more Republican senators would need to get behind it, which might then persuade the Republicans who control the House to take up the measure.

At the Ridgewood meeting, people discussed job-hunting strategies.

Karen Clements, a paralegal, said she had four résumés ready to go, each emphasizing a different skill: bookkeeping, SEC compliance, fraud investigation, and intellectual property rights.

She described a friend who is dressed in business attire by 4 a.m. Mondays, so she’ll be ready the moment an opportunity is posted online.

If the firm wants to do a Skype interview, said Clements, her friend is dressed for Skyping.

“By Tuesday they’ll have 1,000 résumés and the window will be closed.”

“It’s like Wayne Gretzky says,” Braun told them: “You have to skate to where the puck will be.”

They discussed the importance of following up any contact with thank-you e-mails and handing out lots of business cards, though it is tricky to identify yourself when you have no job.

“Be careful of the title you give yourself — you don’t want to sound dated,” said Braun, whose business card reads, “Barbara J. Braun, principal, BarbaraJBraun LLC, Connect Goals to Extraordinary Outcomes.”

Several mentioned the importance of LinkedIn, the business networking website.

“You have to have at least 500 contacts,” said Lisa Sepetjian, who has been an accounts manager for banks and small-business lenders. “Any less shows you don’t care; you’re not in the game.”

Braun described how she was able to go from 50 LinkedIn contacts to 500 in just a week.

“I’m at 4,200,” Fugazzie said.

“I don’t want to know 500 people,” Sepetjian said. “But I want people to know I’m not some baby boomer sitting at home eating bonbons.”

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