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AARP-run program draws complaints

Published Sep. 2, 2005

For the past four years, 70-year-old Lillian Cherbony has held a minimum wage job as a part-time cook at the Enrichment Center in Spring Hill.

Despite earning just $5.15 an hour, Cherbony is happy with the job. It supplements her income. It's close enough to home so she feels comfortable driving herself. And she has grown fond of the people she works for and the seniors who eat her food each day.

"It's like a family situation," she said.

But Cherbony must soon give up her job and be reassigned to work someplace else, most likely in a position with which she is unfamiliar _ all because of changes in the federal program that pays her wages.

To critics of those changes, the irony is that Cherbony's upheaval was brought on because the jobs program is now run by an organization that is supposed to look out for the needs of seniors: the AARP.

In recent days, U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite says her office has fielded at least 10 complaints about the way the AARP's foundation has been running the Senior Community Service Employment Program in Hernando County.

Aside from concerns about abrupt and unpopular job reassignments, Brown-Waite says AARP administrators have been accused of verbally abusing and intimidating seniors in the program, which came under AARP's management in July.

"When AARP is the cause for abuse, I'm sorry, that is totally unacceptable," she said.

The AARP _ formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons _ says it is looking into the complaints of heavy-handedness, but it expects many of them are based on misunderstandings and the fear of change.

The program, which serves 28 Hernando County seniors, was designed to give low-income seniors the skills to find decent jobs at reasonable wages.

Emily Allen, the AARP's assistant national director for the jobs program, said the training is supposed to last six months to a year. After that, the seniors are supposed to take their new skills and gain permanent employment outside the program.

Once they leave, other seniors could benefit from the same training. Allen says for every senior in the program, there are 100 waiting to get in.

But Allen says that when AARP took over the program in July, it found some employees who had been in the same job for eight years or more. One had been in the same job for 20 years, she said. And while the seniors' job responsibilities in the service agencies who employed them had grown, their pay had not.

In effect, the public or community service agencies who employ the workers were getting cheap labor paid for by the government and the seniors weren't moving up the pay scale, Allen said. Seniors may be comfortable with the arrangement, but Allen said they can do better. Besides, the logjam limits the number of seniors that can gain help.

"We believe that if we work with individuals, they can get into better paying jobs and permanent jobs where they have much more potential for advancement," Allen said. Indeed, she said, some of the agencies they now work for might hire them on a permanent basis rather than lose them.

Brown-Waite and others say they understand the concept. But they say it is unrealistic to expect seniors in Hernando County to find an abundance of suitable job opportunities given the county's size, lack of public transportation and limited job availability. Beyond that, they say the AARP failed miserably in how it has implemented its ideas.

Brown-Waite, who calls AARP's transition a "disaster," says one woman was cut from the program because she took time off to have surgery; another, because she took a vacation that had been planned before she was hired.

Chuck Hill, who directs the nonprofit Enrichment Centers Inc. of Hernando County, said AARP has given employees and their employers little notice about job reassignments. And some seniors who need the work to make ends meet were told they had to accept the new jobs or leave.

"I felt these people were being economically threatened _ our way or hit the highway," Hill said. "They are working for minimum wage. They are economically very vulnerable people."

Brooksville parks and recreation department director Joe Tyberghein said four seniors in the program work for him. But an AARP director was unwilling to allow weekend work at the city golf course because it might mean she would be bothered with questions during her days off.

Tyberghein said the reassignments might force some seniors to quit because they can't work far from home due to their transportation needs or responsibilities for a sick loved one.

"There doesn't seem to be a lot of friendliness," he said. "They are being treated sort of roughshod."

In response to the concerns, Allen said AARP will start giving at least 30 days notice to employees before they are reassigned. She said some changes were made abruptly because AARP had very little time to act after winning the contract to administer Hernando's program.

That's not good enough for Brown-Waite. She wants AARP's local director, Barbara Albro, fired. And she has asked the U.S. Department of Labor to look into the complaints about the program.

The Labor Department is paying AARP $200,000 this year to run the Hernando program and $75-million to run similar programs around the country. Brown-Waite says she considers AARP's actions to be "inhumane" and "absolutely unacceptable."

"All I can say is shame on them," she said.

Albro could not be reached for comment.

Cherbony, the cook who serves seniors at the Enrichment Center, said she's not interested in a new job, even if it means a chance to earn more money.

Besides, she says she has looked around for other jobs and found there are none to be had locally. Forcing her out would be unfair to her and the seniors she serves, she said.

"These people get used to us," she said. "I love my work and I don't want to move."

_ Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to