An Australian Story: How an unemployed older couple started up Willing Older Workers (WOW) to do something about older unemployed workers.
The Seniors Conference held last week focussed on an increasing problem facing many older Australians – discrimination against older workers. The feedback from conference participants was very positive.
One group who benefited from the conference is WOW (Willing Older Workers) who said they were grateful to COTA for sponsoring their attendance. Marilyn King, founder and president said that the conference was “amazing as it provided a chance to hear the latest research and provided an opportunity to network.”
Marilyn King told CC how WOW happened. “In September 2010 my husband, Howard, was fired from his remote worker position in north west WA when the company ‘restructured’. He was a mechanical fitter with over 40 years experience and expected he’d get a job quickly. With the loss of job came the loss of the company house, car etc.
In Dec 2010 we moved back to Melbourne because so we would at least have a roof over our heads, and our children said they’d help us if we needed it. We had 3 mortgages – our home and two investment properties – and lived on our savings. We’d found that we did not qualify for any assistance from Centrelink – either financial or help to find work.
In February I became a full-time student and my documentary subject became “Mature-aged unemployment” Howard submitted hundreds of job applications and never got a response.Not even an automatic message to say his application had been received. So he began phoning a week after he submitted his application, to ask if they’d received it. Sometimes he was told he was too old for the job.
By April/May the stress of no income at all began to take its toll on us.
We couldn’t afford medications and had pared our lives to the bare necessities. We had only a few months of mortgage payments left and it was getting scary. We couldn’t sell the properties and the debts kept occurring. My husband was too proud to let the children (young adults who were both working) help us with mortgages or other bills so they began buying food and sneaking it into the cupboards when he wasn’t in the house. After a few months he realised this and said he felt he’d failed them and me.
Mid-June in 2011 we had a watershed moment. I came home from class and Howard said he’d had a good day. I asked if he had a job interview and he said No but he’d found out his Life Insurance paid out on suicide, but only if he did it before he turned 65!
He was 63. He said if he killed himself, I could use the insurance to pay off the mortgages and not lose our home.I went into the bathroom where he couldn’t see me and cried.
I knew he was struggling emotionally, as I was, but whenever we spoke about it he’d always say he was fine. This revelation was frightening so I asked if he’d like to hear my study research. I wanted him to know that he wasn’t alone in thinking this way and that he should not blame himself for being unemployed.I read him other men’s stories about their experiences of age-discrimination and how they contemplated suicide. He sat quietly, listening, then when I’d finished he was silent. It scared me. Then said “We have to help these old buggers”.
How? We couldn’t pay our bills so how were we going to help them?
So we decided to hold a morning tea in July to enable people to meet each other. The local paper did a story, it was picked up by other media and ABC Radio 774 invited us to studio to talk about what we were doing and why.Howard spoke openly about how he felt he was “worth more dead than alive” and the phones rang hot. People came from all over Melbourne. One guy said he stopped counting at 120. We overflowed the Library room. People told their stories. Heartbreaking tales of losing their homes, of not being told about the Low Income Health care card, of being treated sadly by Centrelink and job interviewers. Over and over people said they thought they were the only one experiencing this terrible situation.And they took the information we’d been given by Beyond Blue. One man took me aside and asked me to tell Howard that they day he heard him on radio, he’d picked out what Bus he was going to step in front of. He said to tell Howard he’d decided to wait and meet this guy but he couldn’t say Thanks to him because he’d end up crying. He is still alive.
We have several members who contacted us when they were on the brink of suicide and I’m humbled that they trust us enough to confide in us.One man who came to the morning tea said he’d been unemployed for 8 months and had never told his wife or children because he was ashamed to be unemployed. He used to leave home every morning and go to the Library then go home in the evening. After hearing Howard say in the radio interview that people should not be ashamed because it wasn’t their fault, he told his wife. She already knew but didn’t want to upset him by saying she knew. He said they had separate bank accounts and that was how he thought he’d been able to keep his secret.
So W.O.W! was formed. It was just supposed to be a support group but it kept growing and in November we were urged by a kind businessman to become incorporated. He gave us money to do this and said to spend the rest on presents and food for the Christmas Party we were planning. $1,000 went a long way because by then I was adroit at saving.
We met with Treasurer Wayne Swan’s policy advisor and pitched the idea that the government should offer incentives to companies to employ older workers. At the time there was a lot of incentives to employ young people but the older workers were being ignored. She said there were not that many old unemployed people in Australia!
We were all very polite, and explained that the unemployment statistics did not include people like all of us who had saved, invested and now were not eligible for Centrelink support and that some people, like Howard & I, had used our homes as collateral to buy the investment property (or establish a small business) so Centrelink deemed our home to be a business property and asset tested it as well. She said she wasn’t aware of this.
I suggested that they take some of the money they’d budgeted for youth employment incentives and use it to help companies establish a Mentoring Programme – with a young and an older person job-sharing or at least help them employ mature-aged workers.
She said she would take these ideas back to Canberra. We then did a submission “The Hidden Face of Poverty” and gave a copy to Susan Ryan and sent a copy to Treasurer Swan. It surprised us when we were invited to the launch of Experience Plus at Parliament House.We send member’s stories to the politicians, updating them regularly.
Sadly, what we thought would be a small support group with a lifespan of 5 years max has grown and keeps growing.
We help people in practical ways with fortnightly food parcels, advocacy (dealing with Centrelink, debt collectors, banks, insurance companies), clothing, household items that need replacing (electric blankets, stoves, bedding etc) AND tickets to events because having fun occasionally is good for the soul.
We operate on a very small budget – no funds for administration – so we are all Volunteers. We’ve won awards because the people we help have nominated us.We have received a couple of small grants for equipment and to run projects. (We now have DGR status). Donated foods are collected by Howard and another member in their own cars & trailer (we’re fundraising to buy a food collection & delivery van and a refrigerated trailer)Our Food Programme is not charity. We decided to help preserve people’s dignity so we ask people who want food to come and help run the Food Day. They sort the food, pack it, have a Lunch and socialise, then clean the hall and pack up the tables etc.
The group decided they’d like to donate so they give a small voluntary donation to cover the two insurances we must have and some of the other costs we incur. One gentleman said he knows that his couple of hours work and his $10 donation “goes nowhere near covering the value of the food” he gets but it makes him feel he’s at least contributing something. Another said the food programme is keeping him alive.
People tend to come to us for help when they’ve depleted their savings and even then, they are embarrassed to ask for help.
Most don’t have a Health Care Card and a few people told us they asked for help from other charities and were told they could not get help without a pension card or HCC.
Not everyone who is poor has a HCC and it’s been immensely rewarding to know that two charities have changed their policies and will help people if we refer them. This is wonderful because not everyone can get to Footscray for food assistance. One has branches across Australia so it’s wonderful.
Also rewarding was the fact that Susan Ryan took one of the ideas we proposed in our Submission and implemented an Inquiry into Age Discrimination in the workplace.
As one of our founding Members emailed when the Inquiry was announced “Finally somebody in gov’t is listening. We are no longer being shoved under the table or onto the scrap heap.”
Another joy is the fact that we have a wonderful arrangement with the Scouts. We use their hall for food days and in return we take care of it – cleaning, rubbish disposal, general maintenance. And they are giving us a room to set up an office! This is especially exciting because currently the office is in my tiny lounge room.
Having an office will allow us to teach one-to-one computer skills and run job-ready workshops.People and companies are very kind and donate their skills, food, items and time to keep W.O.W! operational. Neither Howard nor I thought that we’d be doing Guest Speaking at churches, clubs and business functions or meeting politicians etc. We really just wanted to get on with our lives but we couldn’t ignore the plight of so many other folk.
Oh, Howard did get some contract work after being unemployed for over 2 years, but it was sporadic and eventually petered out.Now we’ve just registered a small business. He makes amazing wooden toys (large & small) and leather
WOW continues to grow:
- We’re working on a Cookbook . It’ll have recipes which use the foods that are available from SecondBite and Foodbank. Lots of different ways to modify the frozen meals and to use yogurt, flat breads etc. Once printed, we’ll give it it other charities (who use these food services) so they can give them to their clients.
developing an Advocacy Course so other charities can help their clients
- establishing a series of workshops.
- fundraising to buy a van and a refrigerated trailer
- Lobbying companies and governments to implement a Mentoring/job sharing programme – young and mature-aged workers sharing a job. “Keeping The Skills Chain Intact”
- Upgrading our website.
- Establishing our new office.