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Seniors fear cuts: Proposed budget-trimming targets job program

Tino Gonzalez said he felt afraid when he was one of 100 people laid off at West Fargo wind tower manufacturer DMI in 2009 as product demand waned in the economic recession.

Bill Beck keeps working
Bill Beck works 20 hours a week as a janitor at the Clay County Family Service Center in Moorhead. Photo by David Samson / The Forum

Tino Gonzalez said he felt afraid when he was one of 100 people laid off at West Fargo wind tower manufacturer DMI in 2009 as product demand waned in the economic recession.

The Moorhead resident had zero computer skills and worried that his age and health - he's diabetic and takes six medications - would hurt his chances to find work, he said.

Then he heard about Experience Works, a nonprofit agency that provides on-the-job training and employment for low-income seniors who want to rejoin the work force.

Now, the affable 63-year-old greets people and provides information in English or Spanish at the reception booth in the Clay County Family Service Center, while continuing to look for an unsubsidized job in the private sector.

"I don't know what I'd do without this program," he said this week.

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But Gonzalez and thousands of others may have to learn to live without it if cuts moving through Congress are approved.

President Barack Obama's proposed budget calls for a 45 percent cut in funding for the Senior Community Service Employment Program - the main funding source for Experience Works in Minnesota and North Dakota.

The U.S. House last week approved a more severe 64 percent funding reduction, from $825 million to $300 million.

Such a cut would be "catastrophic" for the 60,000 people who would be forced off the program, said Billy Wooten, executive director of program operations for Experience Works, which operates in 30 states and Puerto Rico and is one of several agencies in Minnesota that administers SCSEP funds.

"The vast majority of those that enter the program face daily struggles - rationing food, choosing whether to pay rent or buy medications, or having to borrow money for gas to drive to job interviews," he said in a news release.

The Experience Works program employs 91 people in a six-county area of west-central Minnesota that includes Clay County, and 94 people in an eight-county area of eastern North Dakota that includes Cass County.

Some budget cuts were expected when federal stimulus dollars ran out. For example, 24 of the 91 positions in the Minnesota area are supported with stimulus dollars, said Deb Trygstad, employment and training coordinator at the Experience Works office in Fergus Falls.

"We knew that there was going to be budget cuts coming, but not like this," she said.

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To be eligible for the program, applicants must be 55 or older and unemployed with annual income below 125 percent of the poverty level, which is $13,613 for an individual. Experience Works then assesses the worker's skills and training opportunities and tries to match him or her with a nonprofit agency.

Program participants work 20 hours per week at minimum wage, grossing $145 per week before taxes. They're allowed to work in the program for 48 months.

Shirley Dykshoorn, executive director of Lake Agassiz Habitat for Humanity, a host agency for program workers, said it's a "win-win" for both sides, providing seniors purposeful employment and income while reducing expenses and bringing valuable labor to nonprofits.

Habitat's ReStore, a thrift store for building materials and supplies in Moorhead, uses program workers as cashiers and sorters of donated items, Dykshoorn said.

"A cut of this magnitude to a program that is so helpful ... is pretty significant," she said.

Craig Aldrich, Trygstad's counterpart in Fargo, said that in addition to benefiting seniors and nonprofits, the program has boosted North Dakota's economy, especially in rural areas. He said $2.9 million has been paid out in wages to program participants so far during the fiscal year that started July 1.

Aldrich said the program has seen increased demand because of tough economic times and the need for seniors to supplement their income.

"Some of it's due to poor planning for retirement. Some of it is people just flat-out were caught off guard, and the Social Security and what other retirement benefits they have just aren't covering the costs of expenses anymore," he said.

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Bill Beck said that was the case when he retired in 2009 from his job at a Salvation Army adult rehab center in Iowa and moved to Moorhead to be near his son.

The 63-year-old Navy veteran said his $765 monthly Social Security check isn't enough to pay the bills, but with the $260 he takes home every two weeks from his janitor job at the Family Service Center, he's "not sitting too bad." He hopes to get hired on part time by the county.

Barb Kessler was a chef when she was injured in a car accident in 1988. She'd never touched a computer before joining the program in April 2008, working for host agency Lutheran Social Services, she said.

Kessler, who has emphysema and carries a portable oxygen tank on her hip, got a job as a property management company in Fargo but was let go during restructuring after less than a year. She worked a seasonal job for H&R Block and is now back with the program and working at LSS again, learning how to do spreadsheets and use e-mail - "even with attachments," she said, smiling.

"When that job ended, I was able to come back on this program, which was really a godsend for me because the job market's tough, and it's even tougher when you're my age," she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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