Earnings freedom means deeper employment pool

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— Like the rest of the nation, Routt County's tight labor market loosened a bit this month when some senior citizens were granted more freedom to make money without jeopardizing their social security benefits.

Since 1935, seniors between the age of 65 and 69 were penalized by the Social Security Administration if they earned more than a certain amount. But that all changed April 7 when the Senior Citizens' Freedom to Work Act of 1999 was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

Geneva Taylor, assistant secretary and treasurer of the Routt County Foundation for Senior Citizens, is thrilled with the new law.

"This has been a long time coming. It's truly a relief for me that this is no longer an issue," she said. "It should be a win-win situation for area seniors as well as employers. The labor shortage here can be helped a lot with the use of seniors but a lot of them haven't been able to work as much for fear of losing their benefits. Now they don't have to worry about that any more."

Now that the average life expectancy stretches into the 80s, there are plenty of seniors continuing to work long after the age of 65. They are people like 85-year-old Florence Nash of Steamboat Springs.

"I don't know what they were thinking when they placed the earning restrictions on seniors in the first place," she said. "It's exciting that those restrictions have been lifted and that seniors with good health can be free to offer a service to the community without worrying about social security."

Barbara Auter, 74, agreed with Nash.

"I think this is a good thing and it will help a lot of the younger seniors in the community," Auter said. "Seniors that want to work can find jobs that work for them, but I know seniors in Steamboat are more willing to volunteer their time than worry about collecting a paycheck. But, many seniors across the country need that paycheck to help make ends meet."

At its inception in 1935, the Social Security Administration limited how much seniors could earn to keep them away from a job market that was struggling with unemployment. In recent years, however, the nation has seen a dearth of employees and seniors have helped to fill that void often at their own expense.

According to the Social Security Administration, more than 800,000 seniors lost part or all of their benefits last year because of the earnings limit. Until the law was passed this year, working seniors between 65 and 69 lost $1 for every $3 they made over a $17,000 limit.

With Baby Boomers moving into retirement age, Congress was concerned that the labor shortage would grow even more severe if seniors were still being steered away from the workplace.

The new legislation repeals the limitation for those 65 to 69 and is retroactive to Jan. 1, 2000.

Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak was watching for the legislation to pass Congress for a long time.

"I think it's a wonderful thing to happen now with the work force shortage in the valley," she said. "Seniors who want to work, or those who want to work more, should be able to work and earn an income as long as they feel productive."

Keith Lightfoot is the director of human resources for Yampa Valley Medical Center. The hospital has made it a practice to hire seniors and he said he thinks the legislation is a step in the right direction.

"This certainly is a positive step. It will enlarge the work force. We have opportunities for people in that age group that want to work," he said. "I find that in Routt County we have more people interested in volunteering their time. But, I do think this will have large impacts nationwide, although I'm not sure what the impacts will be in Routt County."

Taylor said that working seniors reap benefits beyond a paycheck.

"Seniors' health is more than likely maintained or improved by being out in the community, mixing with people and enjoying the social aspect of working," she said. "The social issue is so important; it keeps minds busy. There's no question working keeps them young and keeps their minds off their aches and pains."

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