by Sue Ann Rybak
Sheila Whitelaw, 73, a resident of Mt. Airy for more than 30 years, testified before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging on Tuesday, May 15, about age discrimination in the workplace.
“I have had several incidents where I know my age was a determining factor,” said Sheila Whitelaw, who has been unemployed for two years. “You can’t prove it. You just know it. Your experience doesn’t seem to matter. Age is just a number. It doesn’t define who I am.”
Tim Driver, founder of RetirementJobs.com, a career site and advocacy organization for people aged 50 and older, called Whitelaw “a highly qualified, articulate candidate.”
“She is one of the many who signed our petition in support of the committee’s efforts to help mature workers find jobs,” Driver said. “She is thrilled to be heard after going for a long time finding that the door to the human resources department was apparently closed because of her age.”
And unfortunately, she isn’t alone.
“Laid-off workers in their 50s have only a 75 percent chance of returning to work within two years of a job loss,” according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Whitelaw, who has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, was an executive director at three different nonprofits, including Allens Lane Art Center in Mt. Airy. Whitelaw quit her job at the Free Library of Philadelphia after her daughter became seriously ill and needed a bone marrow transplant.
Whitelaw did what any mother would do and went into what she describes as “caregiver mode.” Later, she decided to return to work as a nanny to help care for a family in Erdenheim.
But in 1999 Whitelaw decided she needed a change.
“I found a job in a boutique in Manayunk where I bought my clothes,” Whitelaw said. “I loved working there and seeing the same customers all the time.”
Unfortunately, the store closed in 2010.
“At 71, I knew I was going to have trouble finding work,” said Whitelaw, who recently had to place her husband, Roland Ayers, in a nursing home because of Alzheimer’s disease. The added financial burden has forced Whitelaw to move out of her house and into a smaller apartment.
“Right now, I am living off Social Security and $35 a month in food stamps,” Whitelaw said.
After submitting hundreds of resumes online and in person, Whitelaw has only had 15 interviews in two years – and only two job offers.
“I turned down one job because it was six days a week,” Whitelaw said, sighing.
The other job Whitelaw had to quit because the hours were longer than were originally discussed.
“They wanted me to work to 11 p.m. in Center City – I couldn’t take the train back that late,” she added.
“I really like to work and be out in the public,” Whitelaw said. “I want to contribute to society.”
Whitelaw recalls asking the people at RetirementJobs.com, “How do you prove these things and how do you change it?”
When asked what she would do to change the situation, Whitelaw said, “I don’t know the answers – that’s for the guys in Washington to figure out.”
Until then, Whitelaw said she will “keep on plugging.”
“I am on the computer every single day,” she said. “I don’t really expect to retire. I plan to keep working as long as I am physically able to.”