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New law pleases working seniors

A law signed by President Clinton in April allows those ages 65 to 70 to earn as much as they like and not lose Social Security benefits.

Doug Shepherd Jr. is 57 and going strong. When he reaches age 65, Shepherd plans to still be working at Auto Air Parts, the Inverness vehicle repair shop his son owns.

Considering those goals, it's no surprise that Shepherd supports the federal government's recent decision to eliminate the earnings cap for certain Social Security recipients.

"That way, we won't be hindered," Shepherd explained. "I look forward to that. It's great for me. Most people that age don't want to quit working."

The new law, which President Clinton signed in April, will help seniors ages 65 to 70.

Previously, Social Security would take away $1 of benefits for every $3 earned by a senior in that age range. This provision kicked in only after the senior had earned more than $17,000 a year.

Under the new law, there is no such earnings cap. Seniors in that age range can earn as much as they like and suffer no penalty.

Seniors who were subject to the old measure will receive a lump-sum retroactive payment to cover benefits accrued since Jan. 1.

"I think it was unfair, very unfair," Shepherd said of the old law.

Mary Guthrie, 68, of Homosassa agreed with that assessment. She works only 20 hours a week at the Burger King in Homosassa and would have been unlikely to ever reach the earnings ceiling.

Still, the principle was important to her.

"People have been penalized and told they could not hold productive jobs," Mrs. Guthrie said. "I really thank Congress for breaking down that barrier."

The earnings cap was a Depression-era measure.

"The idea was to encourage older people not to work, to create jobs for younger people," said David Macpherson, professor of economics and research director at Florida State University's Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy.

Today, of course, the situation is much different. The economic boom has left many employers, especially in the service sector, scrambling for people to fill jobs.

Experts have estimated that the new law, though it will result in the payment of $22-billion during the next 10 years, will cost the government nothing in the long run. The economics are complicated, but Mrs. Guthrie of Burger King knows one of the reasons.

"As I work, I pay Social Security (taxes) now, just as if I weren't retired," she said. "The more they let the retirees do and earn, the more Social Security and Medicare get."

In Citrus County, about 33 percent of the 117,000 or so residents are age 65 or older. It's unclear how many of those people still hold paying jobs _ or how many of those workers earn more than $17,000 and stand to gain from this new law.

Macpherson of FSU said only about 800,000 people nationwide will be affected.

"It sounds good to pass something like this," he said.

Still, the law might inspire some workers to take on more hours, or encourage people outside the job market to wade back in. The latter scenario has Chris Pool encouraged.

Pool directs the Senior Ambassador program, which is funded through the Citrus Levy Marion Regional Workforce Development Board. The program is designed to help people ages 55 and older in those three counties find _ and keep _ good jobs.

"We're positioning ourselves," Pool said when asked about the earnings cap repeal. Specifically, her program has bought newspaper advertisements and planned radio spots to get the word out about the new law and how the program can help people take advantage.

Senior Ambassador teaches people how to get jobs and arranges classroom training or on-the-job training.

"We also help them tap into a hidden job market . . . where employers come to us because they want older workers," Pool said. "Unemployment is so low that, all of a sudden, the elder worker is looked upon as a solution for the work force woes that everyone is feeling."

Margaret Agrifoglia, 73, has worked in the kitchen at the Inverness Burger King the past 10 years. Through the years, she typically has put in 22 to 25 hours each week and thus was unlikely to ever meet the earnings cap, even when she was age 65 to 70.

But it would have been nice to have this new law back then, anyway.

"I just feel as if, if I wanted to put more hours in, I could" have, she said.