Seniority at work

Program puts elderly retirees back in workplace

Posted: Sunday, July 17, 2005


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  Piland has a variety of duties at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center working in the MASST program. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Patty Colburn, right, helps Zori Wallace-Keck with a pottery purchase at the Jim Evenson gallery at Kenai Landing. Colburn is a participant in the Mature Alaskans Seeking Skills Training program.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Whether it's to supplement Social Security retirement income, to continue contributing to society or just to get out of the rocking chair, many older Kenai Peninsula residents are signing up with the state-run MASST program.

An acronym for Mature Alaskans Seeking Skills Training, MASST is the state name of the federal Senior Community Service Employment Program, which is designed to provide useful part-time community service assignments for people 55 and older, while promoting transition to employment that isn't subsidized.

"It beats sittin' around doin' nothin'," said Kenai senior Harold Piland.

"It gets me out of the rocking chair," the 75-year-old MASST participant said.


Colburn arranges pottery in the gallery during a lull between customers. Colburn is a potter herself and puts her interest in art to work as a MASST participant.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Piland has been enrolled in the program since early March and spends up to 25 hours a week helping out at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.

MASST participants — or enrollees, as they are called — are paid the minimum wage of $7.15 an hour and may work 20 hours per week, according to Sherry Collinsworth, the older worker specialist who has coordinated the program on the peninsula for 1 1/2 years.

In some cases — as in Piland's situation — if budgets allow, workers might be able to put in slightly more than the prescribed 20 hours.

A concern among retirees who are collecting retirement Social Security is the amount of extra money they may earn without having their Social Security checks affected.

Collinsworth said if people are at their full retirement age — currently 66 years old — there is no limit on how much they may earn.


Harold Piland talks with Ray Frank, a vendor at the Saturday Market in Kenai, while touring the venue earlier this month. Piland manages the market as part of his duties working as a Mature Alaskans Seeking Skills Training participant.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

If the person is not yet at full retirement age, they can earn up to $12,000 a year without affecting Social Security.

In the year a person reaches full retirement age, he or she can make up to $31,800 that year without Social Security being affected.

Piland, who is receiving Social Security retirement benefits, said, "A little extra money doesn't hurt.

"It's definitely difficult to make it on Social Security alone," he said.

Although Piland qualified for retirement from Unocal where he worked for 19 years, he said he took a lump sum distribution at the time of retirement in 1989. In retrospect, he said that may have been a mistake because now he does not receive a monthly check from the oil giant.

When he first enrolled in MASST, Piland was a greeter at the visitors' center, meeting tourists, answering questions and selling gift items.


Piland has a variety of duties at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center working in the MASST program.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I've enjoyed every bit of it," he said.

He also said he has found learning of tourists' culture to be very interesting and, "Their economy must be very good, 'cause I see a lot of foreign tourists."

Recently Piland took over managing the Saturday market, which is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Saturday in front of the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.

"We're getting more and more vendors every week," Piland said.

"About 90 percent of the products are Alaska made," he said.

The market features arts and crafts, as well as some honey, jellies and jams, and plans are in the works to include locally grown produce soon.

"I think the MASST program is excellent," said Piland.

"It will do a lot of good for a lot of people," he said.

Toward the other end of the age spectrum among the 50 people enrolled in MASST on the Kenai Peninsula is Kenneth Reinhold, who is 61.

Not yet ready for retirement, Reinhold has had a difficult time finding work on the Kenai Peninsula, but has been aided by MASST, which had a need to train other enrollees in the use of computers.

"I teach a basic computer class," said Reinhold of a one-hour class offered at 2 p.m. every Tuesday at the Nikiski Senior Citizens Center.

Reinhold, who says he is looking for work, offers instruction in Microsoft Word, Excel and Access computer software programs.

"I teach computers from the beginning ... from taking it out of the box and plugging it in, and I show them what's inside so they won't be so intimidated (by the computer)," Reinhold said.

In MASST since February, he said he also does some minor computer repair work through Frontier Industries.

Collinsworth said it is easier to place enrollees in jobs if they have some computer skills.

"Usually they're on the waiting list one to two months," she said.

"Sometimes it can take six months, especially if they're in a wheelchair," Collinsworth said.

"If the people have any skills — especially computer skills — I can place them in a couple weeks," she said.

Collinsworth has 50 people in the MASST training program now, 10 of whom are not yet with a host agency.

She has about 30 nonprofit host agencies signed up to place enrollees.

"The host agency is completely refunded by the federal government," Collinsworth said.

"Everything: taxes, worker's compensation," is covered through the MASST program, she said.

She also said enrollees can get annual physical exams, eye exams and prescription glasses every two years while they're enrolled in the program.

Additionally participants can get work boots, steel-toed shoes, winter coats, uniforms and safety glasses if required by the job.

Among host agencies placing enrollees on the Kenai Peninsula are the Lighthouse Community School and the Outreach Council in Nikiski, senior citizens centers in Nikiski, Sterling, Soldotna, Kenai and Homer, Central Peninsula Health Centers, the Kenai Fine Arts Center, the Independent Living Centers in Soldotna and Homer, the Homer Council of the Arts, KBBI public radio, the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank and the Homer Food Pantry, the Pratt Museum in Homer, and Votech and Seaview Community Services in Seward.

"I try to put the person with the nonprofit agency in the field they want to be in," Collinsworth said.

That was perfect for Patty Colburn, of Kenai.

A member of the Kenai Potters' Guild, Colburn works at the Kenai Fine Arts Center and at the center's retail location at Kenai Landing doing retail sales and coordinating the center's volunteers.

"The MASST Program has been good to me because I am a potter and I enjoy working with the public," Colburn said.

"And, you're doing something. You're contributing," she said.

She also uses the program to supplement her income.

One of the older MASST enrollees on the peninsula is Jill Greer, 81, who has been at the Pratt Museum in Homer for 12 years.

"I love working at the Pratt. It's a great job," said Greer, who works in the facility's Marine Room and in the Mae Harrington Cabin across the parking lot from the museum.

Working in the homesteader's cabin is a natural fit for Greer, who homesteaded in Homer with husband, Albert, 82.

"We now have four generations here in Homer," she said.

"I work Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, but not always 8-hour days," she said. "I work when they need me."

She said she enjoys meeting people from all over the world and said she plans to continue working at the museum as long as she can.

Greer collects Social Security, but is among those older Americans born between 1917 and 1926, in what are known as the "gap years," who now receive only one-half of what others receive.

"We're caught in it," she said, of one of the reasons she is enrolled in the MASST Program.

Another reason she said is, "You might say I'm a workaholic."

Greer first worked in "a little king crab cannery on the end of the (Homer) Spit," and said she has also worked in the theater in Homer, the post office and in a department store.

Collinsworth said older residents on the Kenai Peninsula are similar to two-thirds of all older Americans who don't want to retire fully.

"They want to keep busy," she said.

"The problem is just finding a job. Age discrimination is alive and well on the peninsula," Collinsworth said.

Her job in placing the older residents also is one of selling their characteristics, which she said include better work ethics, lower turn-over rates, less absenteeism, greater punctuality and, in many cases, better work performance.

"Most of these people have climbed the ladder," said Collinsworth.

"Now they want less stressful jobs."

To enroll in the MASST Program, people can contact Collinsworth at the Nikiski Senior Center by calling 776-7583 or toll-free at (866) 776-7654.

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