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Too Many Companies Unable to See Beyond a Job Applicant's Age

August 04, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

If you think you've got troubles, listen up to what's been happening to Rita Marie Baker the last few years.

Rita is 68 and has lived most of her life in the Eastern United States. When her 31-year marriage broke up three years ago, she moved to Orange County to be near her three adult children who are scattered about Southern California. She didn't want to live with them or impose on them--just be close. "They're struggling," she says, "and it was difficult for them to come back to Connecticut to visit."

She had excellent office skills and an impressive work background. She also both wanted and needed to work. She couldn't support herself otherwise. That was the positive side of her employment ledger. The negative side was her age and a damaged right foot. She had cancer there that was treated successfully but left her with a rigid right ankle that requires her to walk with a crutch. But there's nothing wrong with her thinking processes, her skills, her energy or her will to work.

Trouble was, no prospective employers ever got far enough with her to find this out. They just said, "No thanks." So in desperation, she turned to the Private Industry Council of Orange County, which runs a whole series of job training and placement programs for people such as Rita who want to work but either don't have the skills or are unable to find a job.

Council members who oversee the program are volunteers from the Orange County business community, and its work is funded under the federal Job Training Partnership Act. Although it helps people from 17 to 70, the PIC program has been especially effective in finding work for older people, placing 80% of the 68 students over age 60 that it has helped this year.

So it was a natural place for Rita to turn, and she quickly became a favorite with teachers and fellow students alike. She spent seven months updating and upgrading herself on current business machines and spreading her particular brand of good cheer. Then she hit the job market.

She doesn't remember how many prospective employers she visited over the next three months to offer her new skills, but Cynthia Coad, who coordinates PIC's Business Clerical Program, says that Rita "went personally to 86 companies regarding posted clerical jobs which matched her skills." She got 86 turndowns.

Rita remembers that about one-fourth of the time, "as soon as a prospective employer saw me, they said the job was filled. The other three-fourths were very pleasant and interviewed me and tested me, but then about six weeks later I'd get a polite letter saying the job had been filled."

Any mention of age or infirmities?

"No," says Rita, "they know better. I worked for the Commission on Human Rights in Stamford, Conn., and I found out how careful employers are. They have thousands of highly sophisticated ways to eliminate you from the work force."

Then about two months ago, things seemed to turn around for Rita. First, she found a clerical job in a local service business. Then she was told she would be honored at the PIC fifth anniversary dinner with an award as Adult Participant of the Year.

For several weeks, Rita was on a high. Then, shortly before the award dinner, she lost her job. No reason. She was just told that her services were no longer needed and they would be happy to give her the highest references. So she accepted her award anyway and drove home with it to her Anaheim apartment about 10:30 at night. She had to park on the street because she can't afford a garage, and as she got out of her car, trying to balance her plaque and her crutch, a car full of teen-agers sped by so close that she had to press against her car, dropping the glass-enclosed plaque, which shattered on the street. The teen-agers stopped, backed up, and ran over the plaque, destroying what was left of it. Then they drove off, shouting and laughing.

Rita didn't want me to tell this story. She says, "I never want to cause trouble for anyone, but these kids were the exception. Most young people are polite and helpful to me." She also didn't wallow in self-pity. "Nobody," she told me, "ever said life was supposed to be easy or fair. I'll never give up. That's the old American way, isn't it?"

With that kind of determination, there can still be happy endings. The Private Industry Council is having a new plaque made for Marie. And last week she found a job with the Orange County Branch of the Orton Dyslexia Society. "Sometimes you run scared," she says, "but I love to work. I need to work. I want to work. And I want to contribute to society as long as I live."

So do a lot of other people whose only impairment is that they are perceived as old. In that world, Rita Marie Baker is one hell of a role model.

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