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What Age Smart Employers Are Doing Right

Win-win strategies for older workers and places hiring them

A tip for employers: Be like Amy. Or like Brooks.

That’s Amy as in Amy’s Bread and Brooks as in the Long Island City Factory Alterations Center of Brooks Brothers, two of the six newly announced winners of the 2015 Age Smart Employer Awards. These New York City firms demonstrate impressively that hiring, training and keeping workers over 50 can be a win-win: good for business and good for the older employees (as well as the younger ones they work with).

“Staying engaged and active at every age is good for society, and employers lose if they lose the smarts, commitment and lifetime experience of older workers,” said Dr. Linda P. Fried, dean of the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health at the Age Smart Employer Awards breakfast I attended yesterday morning. (Fried is also one of Next Avenue’s 2015 Influencers In Aging.)

The awards, now in their second year, are an initiative of The Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center (of Columbia University) and The New York Academy of Medicine, which advances solutions promoting the health and well-being of people in cities worldwide.

Employers lose if they lose the smarts, commitment and lifetime experience of older workers.

— Dr. Linda Fried, Columbia School of Public Health

The other 2015 winners, chosen among 52 applicants: Eneslow Pedorthic Enterprises; NYU Langone Medical Center; Metro Optics Eyewear and Sunnyside Community Services. All the winners have policies and practices “which encourage different generations to work productively and effectively side by side,” said Ruth Finkelstein, associate director of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, who dreamed up the awards.

Age Smart Employer logoOne reason the Age Smart Employer Awards were created: Over 700,000 New York City workers are 55 or older — 18 percent of its workforce. Dr. Jo Ivey Boufford, president of the New York Academy of Medicine, told the audience the goal is “to make New York the age-smartest city in the world.”

Older workers “have an unparalleled work ethic,” Luis Nava, director of operations at the Brooks Brothers facility, told the audience. “Having them means more productivity and reduces costs. It makes sense from a business perspective.”

What exactly are these Age Smart Employers doing right and what can the rest of America’s employers learn from them?

To find out, I interviewed Amy’s Bread founder Amy Scherber, Brooks Brothers’ Nava, NYU Langone’s Senior Director of Benefits Margaret Meagher and Eneslow’s owner Robert Schwartz.

Amy’s Bread: Kneading a Culture of Respect

Scherber, 55, has baked Amy’s Bread into a thriving bread and pastry bakery with three retail cafes and distribution to over 250 wholesale customers daily throughout New York City. She started with five employees and now has 190.

Scherber told the ceremony audience: “When I started my bakery in 1992, I was 32 and didn’t think a lot about aging.” Now, 23 years later, she makes a point of retaining her older workers — sometimes restructuring their jobs due to physical demands — and using them to train younger employees. (Incidentally, I had two of her mini-muffins at the ceremony. Delicious.)

“Some of our jobs require lifting dough into tubs or into ovens, which works the shoulder muscles,” said Scherber. “When a person gets to the point and says ‘I can’t do it,’ we switch them to a lighter-duty role. I’ll work out something so they are more of a supervisor.”

Scherber also occasionally tells her new twentysomething employees to appreciate the ones in their 50s and beyond. “A younger person might come in and look at someone older and say: ‘That’s like my dad or my grandmother.’ But that’s not how we treat them. I try to encourage our younger workers to respect the older workers. I look to the older workers as leaders who can share their experience.”

And, Scherber added, often the young employees come to realize that “‘Wow! They can teach me a craft that can become my career.’”

Brooks Brothers: Tying In a Need for Personal Time

The average employee age is 54 at Nava’s factory, which makes 1.5 million ties a year for the world-renowned clothing retailer; 49 percent of its 220 employees are 55+. Some have been there for decades, working into their 70s.

“Having the older workers has reduced my need for hiring and training and has helped maintain a standard level of quality for our customers,” said Nava. “The type of experience and skills the people have at our facility are very difficult to replace. Our people in their 70s can be just as productive as the younger people we have, if not more so.”

Another thing they’ve learned at the Brooks Brothers facility, Nava said, is that older workers “sometimes need more personal time as a function of their age — they have children and their children have children. It’s not uncommon for them to have a sick relative or their own doctor’s appointment.” (AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving say half of workers who provide care for adults over 50 have reported getting to work late, leaving early or taking time off as a result.)

To accommodate the need for personal time, the older employees are “cross-trained” with others. “So if someone has to leave early or come in late, the work can still carry on,” said Nava.

And Brooks Brothers has creatively changed its “punctuality policy,” too.

“It used to be if you were late, there’d be a red flag and you’d have to go to HR and would get a verbal warning. That was very time-consuming and it didn’t distinguish a legitimate reason from someone just showing up late,” said Nava. Now, each employee gets a time allowance of 1,400 minutes per year and tells his or her supervisor in advance when it’ll be used.

NYU Langone Medical Center: Health Care + Family Care

One of New York City’s premier medical centers, if not the world’s, NYU Langone Medical Center has 925 employees who’ve been there 25 years or longer. Quite a few have been there 45 years, something you don’t see a lot these days. More than a third of the 20,000-person staff is 55 and older.

“We’re an academic medical center, so our workforce tends to be a bit older than the typical workforce,” said Meagher. “We strive to be the best at attracting and retaining the best.”

Indeed, retention is a big deal here.

“When I’ve asked longer-service employees what makes them stay, a lot say it’s because they’re doing the kind of work they like to do,” said Meagher. “But we also have very comprehensive benefits: medical and dental, long-term care insurance and generous life insurance and retirement plans. So once you become aware of the need to support yourself in retirement, our plans are very competitive.”

Its Family Care Bank, established last year, is a particularly innovative flexible work arrangement.

“Normally, if you get to the end of the year and haven’t used your vacation time, you lose it,” said Meagher. “But now we’ve moved that time to a Family Care Bank so if you have a reason to take off to care for a sick person in your family that would otherwise cut into your vacation time, you can use the care bank and get income from it while you’re out for what would normally be an unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

This paternalism extends into retirement, too.

While other employers have scrapped their retiree health benefits, NYU Langone hasn’t. “For our newer employees, we build a retiree medical account for them over their working career — $4,000 a year once they turn 40. When they become Medicare eligible, they can use that account to pay their out-of-pocket health costs,” Meagher said.

Eneslow Pedorthic Enterprises: Walking the Walk

As you might be able to tell by its name, this footwear company’s stores cater to older customers (a pedorthist has specialized training to modify footwear and use supportive devices for feet and lower limbs). “Our focus is helping people to improve the quality of their lives from the foot up,” said Eneslow owner Robert Schwartz, 74.

So it’s not terribly surprising that Eneslow puts its best foot forward to keep the older workers among its 32-person team, some with 40 years of experience.

“As we get older and our feet hurt, that affects our self-esteem and we feel less attractive. Someone in their 50s or 60s with skills and maturity has greater empathy and compassion to serve clients with a spirit that’s superior,” Schwartz said.

Many of Eneslow’s employees who are that age work full-time. “In their second half of their 60s is when we see some start to slow down to part-time work — and even then, it’s sometimes not until closer to their 70th birthday,” Schwartz noted.

When that happens, Eneslow lets his staffers “dial down” their hours. “We find a schedule that works for both of us,” said Schwartz, though part-timers working less than 30 hours a week don’t get benefits other than paid time off.

Schwartz’s philosophy: “Don’t give up on people.”

He added: “I have friends in their late 50s at big companies who are sure they will be gone any day now. There’s no question they’ll be kicked out by 60. When that happens, they can come to work with me.”

Schwartz got a big laugh when he told the Age Smart Employers audience: “You know, Crain’s [a trade publication about New York businesses) has its ’20 under 20’ list and ’40 under 40.’ I want to see ’70 over 70.’”

It could happen.

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