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For retirees, living not always easy

(ran SS edition of Metro & State)

For many new arrivals to Florida, costs quickly outpace their income and they must spend their golden years on the job.

The first time he went grocery shopping, Fred Cross knew he was not in Virginia anymore.

There in the air conditioning, amid frozen dinners, canned vegetables and cereal boxes, Cross found the bread section. Giant, his favorite brand, was $1.09. Back in Virginia, Cross said, he could buy two loaves of that brand for the same price.

"Food is as expensive, if not more, than up North," said Cross, 62, who came from Woodbridge, Va.

This is not what Cross expected when he moved to Largo on the July Fourth weekend. Realizing the $1,200 he got each month in Social Security and pension benefits would not be enough to live on in his golden years, Cross got a job working nights in the mail room of a data processing plant on U.S. 19 near East Bay Drive.

Employers and job placement specialists are encountering many people like Cross, seniors who discover living is more expensive than they thought and decide they must go back to work.

"They expect to take it easy but they say the cost of living is truly greater down here," said Kay Reitz, who helps senior citizens find work for an organization sponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons' Foundation. "The cost of medicine has increased greatly. People are healthier now and they want to work and they need to work."

Reitz, project director of the AARP's Senior Community Service Employment Program in Clearwater, said the organization is dealing with more seniors who say they need to work. Between July 1998 and June 1999, the agency served 495 seniors. Between July 1999 and June 2000, that number increased to 531.

"Their Social Security is not holding up," Reitz said.

Seniors who retire and later return to the work force are a "relatively new phenomenon," said Amy Pienta, an assistant professor at the University of Florida's Institute on Aging. There has not been a great deal of research on the subject, Pienta said, but she recalled one survey that found one of 10 seniors who retire from their jobs winds up going back to work.

Across the country, more and more seniors are working.

In 1998, there were 17-million Americans over the age of 55 who were working either part time or full time, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. By 2008, that number is expected to jump to 25.2-million, a 48 percent increase, which would be the largest jump of any age group.

Reitz said these older job seekers are not having major difficulty finding work. Nearly two-thirds of those who came to her agency found full-time jobs last year. Most of the jobs are in telemarketing, at the Home Shopping Network or in a mail room such as the one where Cross works.

Louise Chuvard found a job through the AARP, handling the switchboard and reception duties for Bric McMann Industries, a camouflage and cosmetology clothing manufacturing company with an office in downtown Clearwater.

Chuvard, 70, moved to Largo last September from Southfield, Mich. The $497 she got each month from Social Security was not enough to make ends meet, she said.

"I just couldn't make it," she said. "It was either work or go back (to Michigan), which I didn't want to do."

Pienta acknowledges that there are many people like Chuvard, who have limited incomes and need to work. But she and other experts wonder whether the cost of living is truly greater in Florida as compared with the cold weather states at the other end of Interstate 75 from where many seniors migrate.

In the case of many seniors, Pienta suggests, they are accustomed to the higher salaries of the days before they retired and are not prepared for the fact that their pension and Social Security benefits may not cover the cost of the life of a retiree. That life, which can entail early-bird breakfast, lunch and dinner specials, can actually cost as much or more than prior days when they cooked most of their own meals.

"After 12 months, they miss the money," Pienta said.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the cost to live in the South is fairly similar to that in the Midwest, figures from the Consumer Price Index show.

In July, the most recent month for which such statistics were compiled, the southern United States rated 167.9. The Midwest was at 168.7. The index has gradually increased in all parts of the country since recording the rate by geographic region began in 1998.

Sara Rix, a senior policy adviser for the AARP, based in Washington, D.C., said many seniors are not prepared for their retirement.

"There are always people who didn't expect to go back to work," she said. "They didn't plan accurately."

Chuvard has tried to manage by playing the role of the prudent shopper. She looks for deals on items she needs. She tries to avoid buying groceries she knows she does not need.

"I have to pinch pennies," Chuvard said.

Some seniors plan on looking for a part-time job once they come to Florida. But the state ranks 30th in average annual pay, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and a part-time job will not cover the expected cost many seniors believe it will take to live comfortably.

"They're used to making $15 an hour, and here, they are making $6," said Reitz, who calls Florida's pay scale "ridiculous."

Cross, however, did not expect to work when he came to Florida. He now works 40 hours a week in the mail room at Special Data Processing, part of a crew that ships off 2-million pieces of mail a week.

Despite the unanticipated work nights, Cross said he does not have regrets about moving to Florida.

Cross, a widower, is waiting on his "sweetie," as Cross calls her, a woman he met over the Internet who is retiring from her job later this month to move in with him.

He is also excited about a winter without snow, devoid of worries about the wind-chill factor.

"I'm glad to be out of the cold," he said.