By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Jean Coyle, 67, has a new kind of ministry.
The former professor had just begun a career as a Presbyterian minister in Virginia when the economic downturn forced her church to let her go in 2007. After that, she found only temporary work.
She relied on savings while job hunting, but at 64, had to dip into her Social Security benefits. She officially retired in 2010. For spending money, she plans to start teaching a water aerobics class to earn $40 a week.
"I'm not going to get wealthy on that," she said. "It's not really the ministry I expected to have."
Coyle is among the many unemployed, older Americans who, while struggling to reenter the workforce, have growing worries that their retirement security is at risk.
The number of long-term unemployed workers aged 55 and older has more than doubled since the recession began in late 2007, and getting back to work is increasingly difficult, according to a government report being released on Tuesday.
For unemployed seniors, the chances of reentering the workforce are grim.
Experts worry that unemployed seniors face a long-term threat as the impact of lost wages compounds.
In what should there be prime earning years, these older workers rely on savings, miss out on potential wages and prematurely tap into Social Security - all at a time when Americans live longer and health care and other living costs are rising.
About 55 percent of jobless seniors, or 1.1 million, have been unemployed for more than six months, up from 23 percent, or less than 200,000, four years earlier, according to a copy of the Government Accountability Office report obtained by Reuters.
The GAO, a non-partisan investigative arm of Congress, also found that years of lost work significantly reduced retirement income, particularly for those with defined contribution retirement plans.
Overall, older workers fare better than their younger counterparts, with a lower unemployment rate and less risk of losing jobs, the GAO found, even as it highlighted the struggles of jobless seniors.
"Long-term unemployment has particularly serious implications for older Americans," the GAO said in its report to the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
Those seniors who continue looking for work amid a tepid economic recovery confront competition from younger, cheaper workers. They also must keep pace with ever-changing technology.
Sen. Herb Kohl, chairman of the Special Committee on Aging who is to lead a hearing on the issue on Tuesday, is investigating ways to counter age discrimination and boost seniors' job prospects.
"These are the people we should be most worried about," he said. "With the aging of the baby-boom generation, the fact is that older workers will continue to make up a much larger share of our country's labor force."
LOST WAGES, LESS SAVINGS
A flurry of recent reports have raised fresh concerns about the ability of some older Americans to support themselves in retirement.
More seniors with jobs expect to work longer, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, and just 14 percent say they believe they can retire comfortably.
The GAO assessed the impact of job loss and forced early retirement on older workers' income. It showed a significant impact on income in later years.
It found those who had been part of a 401(k) or other similar employer-sponsored defined contribution pension plan stood to lose more of their expected retirement income than those who had defined benefit pension plans or relied solely on Social Security, the nation's benefit program for retirees.
For example: an individual with a defined contribution plan who stops working at age 55 instead of age 62 would see a 39 percent drop in median-level retirement income, from $817 per month to $500 per month, according to the GAO, which did not take other retirement income sources into account.
At the same time, a similar worker would see a 13 percent drop in median Social Security retirement benefits from $1,467 to $1,273 a month.
The impact on workers with employer plans is greater because they can generally save more for retirement and typically have higher wages that also result in higher Social Security benefits, GAO said.
"These workers also have the most retirement income to lose by becoming unemployed," it said.
A worker relying only on Social Security may see $30 to $60 less each month but face harsh consequences, GAO researchers said, because they have less savings to provide a cushion and may be laid off before they can claim the government benefit at age 62.
Laid-off workers and other experts gave many reasons that employers appeared reluctant to hire seniors.
Refusing to hire someone because of age is illegal, but GAO experts found potential discrimination still lingers.
Often employers assume that older workers used to earning more money or having a higher-level job would not stay long in an inferior position, according to the GAO's interviews. Higher health care costs are also an issue.
The GAO, which talked to seniors in Maryland, Virginia, California and Missouri, also chronicled the toll of long-term unemployment. Self-esteem took a beating, and it became increasingly hard to sustain job searches, they said. Some fretted not just about their own bills but about the obligations of college-age or unemployed children.
At the AARP, the lobbying group for 36 million older Americans, legislative policy director David Certner said certain older worker groups - such as women and minorities - are particularly at risk of poverty given "this really incredible perfect storm" with low savings rates, shrinking pensions, lower home values and longer lives.
It is unclear what action Congress will take, particularly in an election year ripe with political gridlock.
Some lawmakers want to strengthen discrimination laws while others want legislation to prevent employers from screening out unemployed workers.
Coyle, who starts her part-time job next month, understands how a younger minister might have a better chance landing a full-time job. But she remains hopeful that she will find a place to preach again.
"I used to tell my gerontology students if you know your date of death you could plan very well," she said, "but I really want to be useful. It's not just a money issue."
(Editing by Leslie Adler)