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Never too old to work

| Sunday, Feb. 13, 2005

Jennie Webb finally joined AARP last month, but the Moon resident isn't about to quit working.

She plans to spend the balance of her golden years working under the Golden Arches.

"I'll work till I die," says Webb, a diminutive, green-eyed woman who works at the McDonald's on Beaver Grade Road in Moon. "I have to work. That's all there is to it."

Jennie Webb is 91 years old.

Webb, who has outlived two husbands, two of her four children and 11 of her 12 siblings, joined AARP to take advantage of its motorist benefits, in case she has car trouble. She drives to her job up to six days a week to help pay for soaring medical and prescription drug costs.

Whether it's because of economic necessity or simply a way to remain active, more people over the traditional retirement age of 65 are working, experts say.

"There's a growing trend for older people to stay in the work force longer. It's not a powerful trend at this point, but we are seeing the beginnings of it," said Richard Schulz, director of the Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh.

"This trend will become stronger over time as the baby boomers age," he said -- and live longer than previous generations.

The U.S. Labor Department projects that workers over 55 will make up 19.1 percent of the labor force by 2012, up from 14.3 percent in 2002. In the past decade, older people have become the fastest-growing segment of the work force. In 1982, the over-55 segment of the work force was 13.5 percent .

"Older people are healthier than they were 20 years ago," said Christopher Briem, a regional economist with the Pitt center. "We're more employed in occupations where people can continue to work, compared to the blue-collar work force that we used to be."

Webb is among 39,000 people in metropolitan Pittsburgh who are past 65 and still working, according to the 2000 Census. In 1950, 5.1 percent of employed people in metro Pittsburgh were over 65. That number decreased to 3.4 percent by 1970 as more people took advantage of defined-benefit pensions to retire at 65.

The trend reversed two decades later, as health care costs rocketed and pensions were squeezed or disappeared. By 1990, the over-65 segment had increased slightly, to 3.5 percent, and in 2000 rose more, to 3.8 percent.

It's a good thing Webb likes to keep busy; most of the $200 she takes home every two weeks goes for medicine. Her part-time job supplements her Social Security benefits of about $900 a month. Her deceased husbands left no pensions.

Co-workers say Webb earns her pay.

"She's a very hard worker. She doesn't act like she's 91 at all," said Carletta Lucas, 22, a co-manager.

Luci Boleo, 41, who has worked with Webb for about four years, described her as spry and friendly.

"She gets along with everybody," Boleo said.

Her job includes clearing tables, sweeping, making coffee, tending to condiment trays, greeting customers and an assortment of other tasks that keep the restaurant humming. Her regular shift is five hours a day, five days a week, but she puts in longer hours when asked.

"Even when we're busy, she keeps up with the dining room," Lucas said. "We love Jennie. We wouldn't trade her for the world."

Al Merritt and his wife, Fran, owners of the McDonald's franchise, consider her a fixture at the business -- "everybody's grandmother." She has 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren of her own.

"She has loads of energy and a lot of mother wit," said Al Merritt. "We cherish her, and we watch over her to make sure she's OK."

Webb was born Aug. 31, 1913, in Scranton, grew up in Southwestern Pennsylvania and has worked nearly all her life in a variety of jobs outside the home. As a child, her first job included chores on her family's 500-acre farm in Westmoreland County. She tried retirement at 70, but it didn't stick.

"After a month, I got tired of being in the house," said Webb, who rides an exercise bike at home.

Longevity carries a price, she said. Her hands ache from arthritis. Her heartbeat is regulated by a pacemaker. She has circulatory problems in her legs, high blood pressure, a thyroid condition and a digestive disorder. She was hospitalized last year to clear blockages in her carotid arteries. She had a bout with pneumonia early this year.

She takes 19 pills a day, counting prescriptions and over-the-counter products such as aspirin, to treat various ailments. Her costs for prescribed medicines -- after discounts she gets from her health care plan -- run more than $200 a month and would cost as much as $800 a month if she filled all the prescriptions all the time, Webb said.

"Every time I pay for them, they're higher and higher," she said.

To keep her medicine costs in a range she can afford, Webb says she gets prescriptions for less expensive substitutes and generics and asks doctors for samples when they're available.

Webb subscribes to a Medicare HMO that costs about $85 a month -- plus co-payments for doctor visits and drugs. She said she's not eligible for the state's PACE program that helps seniors with prescription drugs because her total income is slightly more than the program's threshold. A single person can make no more than $14,500 a year to qualify.

Alan G. Rosenbloom, chief executive of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, said Webb's situation is not uncommon.

"If you are in a Medicare HMO, you can still be in a situation where the out-of-pocket costs can be too much to foot the bill," he said. "Not knowing her individual circumstances, it's hard to know whether she's taken advantage of all the government programs that might be available to her. But it's also the case that many older Pennsylvanians face those kinds of choices with respect to paying for prescription medication."

"Seniors are having a tough time making ends meet," he said.

Webb's job at McDonald's for the past 12 years has helped her stay independent, something she cherishes. She has turned down relatives' offers for a place to live. Instead, she pays $350 a month in rent for a five-room house with a yard where she can tend to a small vegetable garden.

At different times in her life, she has worked as a dishwasher, cook, baker, beautician, bartender, gas station manager and assistant manager of a country club. She was a safety inspector at the Dravo Corp. shipyards on the Ohio River during World War II.

Life has been paycheck to paycheck, she said.

Her first husband, a miner, squandered money and his health by drinking, Webb said. He died after they were married 39 years. Her second husband died of malaria about a year after they were married.

Asked what she would be doing if she didn't need money, Webb said, "I'd volunteer to work in a hospital."

"I quit school in the seventh grade, and yet I was able to do good work," she said. "I had to work to make it. It's never been an option. It's a good thing I didn't mind it."

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