Senate Aging Committee Spotlights Aging Workforce Challenges

(Editor’s Note: This story is part of a partnership between Chasing the Dream and Next Avenue.)

By: Richard Eisenberg

The challenges facing older workers, and older Americans who want to work, are abundant —ranging from age discrimination to employers’ unaccommodating workspaces and work schedules to deficiencies in training. Appropriately, on the cusp of the 50th anniversary of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act next week, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging yesterday issued an important report, America’s Aging Workforce: Opportunities and Challenges, and held a riveting hearing on the subject.

The upshot: Employers and policymakers have a lot to do to address the challenges of older workers, but a few businesses (such as L.L. Bean, PNC and CVS) are stepping up.

Also, as two impressive older workers who testified at the hearing demonstrated, it can be possible to find good jobs and benefits in your 50s or 60s, though it probably won’t be easy.

Addressing the Aging Workforce Challenges

“As we grow older, all of us are likely to face some kinds of challenges as we continue to work longer,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the committee and a 2015 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging. “And employers are going to need older workers; there aren’t enough workers in the country that they can afford to discard the extraordinary skills, judgment and experience that older workers bring to the workplace.”

As Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), the committee’s ranking minority member, noted: “Talent is ageless.”

Why do so few employers seem to understand that?

Few Employers Are Taking Action

As the committee’s 53-page (208 footnotes!) report said, “Most employers acknowledge the trend of the aging workforce; few are taking action.” One statistic cited: 80 percent of employers say they are supportive of employees who plan to work past the age of 65, but only 39 percent offer flexible scheduling options and just 31 percent facilitate processes for moving from full-time to part-time roles.

Laurie McCann, a senior attorney from AARP Foundation, told the committee that “age discrimination is still distressingly prevalent, but it’s also taking new forms.” Some employers, she said, require job applicants to be digital natives or limit their recruiting to college campuses or have job-posting algorithms that screen out older applicants.

Not helping, said McCann: the Supreme Court’s 2009 Gross case decision that imposed a much higher burden of proof on people who believe they lost their jobs due to age discrimination than on sexual or religious bias. (A bipartisan bill aims to restore the age-discrimination rules to what they were pre-2009.)

“Discrimination is discrimination and age discrimination should not be treated more leniently than other forms of bias,” McCann noted. She said the Gross case has sent a message, so attorneys are less likely to take age discrimination cases now.

According to a 2013 AARP survey, nearly two-thirds of workers age 45 to 64 believe workers still face age discrimination. In 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received more than 20,000 claims of age discrimination.

A Few Employers Welcoming Older Applicants and Employees

The committee’s report and experts who appeared at the hearing did, however, point to a few companies who are welcoming to older applicants and employees.

Fernan R. Cepero, chief human resources officer and chief diversity officer for YMCA of Greater Rochester (N.Y.), pointed to CVS. The drugstore chain’s seasonal “snowbird” program lets older workers transfer from cold-weather stores up north to warmer ones in the south and west during the winter.

Lisa Motta, who is blind, told her inspiring story about getting hired and retrained by PNC in Pittsburgh in her 50s as a human resources employee. Originally, Motta was a schoolteacher, but after going blind due to glaucoma, she left that career and then spent nearly the last 20 years out of work. When Motta, now 54, started job-hunting again, she found many employers had online applications that “were not accessible with the screen-reading software people who are blind need to use.”

And when she did get interviews, Motta added, “it seemed as if the employer already had preconceived notions on my abilities based on my disability.

But PNC and the state’s vocational rehab program worked together to help Motta land her current job. “The vocational rehab office assisted by retraining me in ‘white cane skills,’ taught me a local route from my home to my office and how to use public transportation,” she said. PNC made Motta’s workspace accessible for her and guide dog, Aspen. Motta’s phone now beeps when there’s a message; before it just blinked.

“Once those obstacles were overcome, I was able to start coordinating interviews for internal and external candidates across the entire PNC footprint,” Motta told the committee. “My second career afforded me the ability to assist my children with their college costs and put money aside for retirement and let my husband retire at a younger age.”

At PNC, Motta also serves on a committee that looks at the entire enterprise “through the lens of disabilities” so it can better accommodate employees.

As Collins noted, “older workers are more likely to have a disability than younger workers.” The Senate committee’s report noted that 25 percent of people 65 to 74 have a disability and 50 percent of those 75 and older do; by contrast, just 6 percent of people 18 to 34 have disabilities.

A few other large employers applauded in the Senate committee report:

  • Pitney Bowes, which offers a $3,000 educational subsidy to increase skills of older workers in handling newer technologies
  • L.L. Bean, which aspires to be known as an employer with “ageless appeal,” offers seminars geared toward aging employees and retirees, including ones on elder care and estate planning and offers flexible scheduling options and telecommuting
  • Michelin, where nearly 40 percent of the workforce is 50+ and the company has a new program supporting a gradual ease into retirement, including transitions into part-time work
  • First Horizon National, which lets employees within three years of retirement reduce their schedules to between 20 and 30 hours a week if they commit to mentoring their successors and agree to stay on for one to three years

Getting Hired After Retraining

Some small businesses also see the advantage of hiring unemployed older workers who have decades of experience, as Ralph Jellison’s story to the Senate committee showed.

Jellison, a father of six, lost his Bucksport, Maine paper mill job in 2014 at 52. He then took an Eastern Maine Community College fine woodworking course to develop new skills. That led to getting hired by Hinckley Yacht.

While on disability leave from that job due to a knee injury, Jellison met a former mill employee colleague who worked at GAC Chemical in Searsport, Maine. Three days later, Jellison got a call from that company asking him what he did in the mill for 27 years. When he explained, Jellison was told: “Wow, you are versed in a lot of things we need here.” He’s been working at GAC Chemical ever since.

“My wife said when one door closes, another one opens. This job gives me good pay and insurance and it’s close to home,” Jellison says. “My life was turned upside down at 52 and I’m providing for my family again.”

Strong Case for Hiring Older Workers

The number of Americans working past age 55 is at a historic high and Americans increasingly envision themselves working longer than people their age did 25 years ago, the report noted. Yet older workers are more likely to be among the long-term unemployed than younger ones. And only 42 percent of employers have increased their training and cross-training efforts in response to the aging workforce, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management In addition, the report said, “formal supports for caregivers are not commonplace.”

But, the report stated: “At work, older Americans are productive. They can offer employees exemplary skills and experience as well as an exceptional work ethic. The business case for hiring, retraining and supporting older workers is strong.”

Watching the Senate committee’s hearing and reading its report leads to a simple conclusion: The world for older workers would be so much better if more employers would make jobs more suitable for them and hired people 50+ who are desperate to offer their services, talents and expertise.

A final line from the Senate aging committee’s report which ought to give America’s business executives pause: “Employers that do not acknowledge and prepare for the changing demographics of the workforce may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to attracting and retaining talented workers.”

This story is part of our partnership with Next Avenue. Next Avenue is public media’s first and only national journalism service for America’s booming older population. Their daily content delivers vital ideas, context and perspectives on issues that matter most as we age.