SHRM: Flexibility Needed to Recruit, Retain Older Workers

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Public policy needs to provide a framework that is flexible so employers are able to develop programs that address the needs of businesses and older employees, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) told the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The commission heard testimony Nov. 17, 2010, from a number of experts, including Cornelia Gamlem, SPHR, on the impact of the recession on older workers and the legal issues surrounding age discrimination.

The number and percentage of age discrimination charges filed with the EEOC has risen from 16,548 in fiscal 2006 to 22,778 in fiscal 2009. SHRM Online reported in 2009 that persons age 55 and older who are unemployed remain unemployed longer than those in other groups.

Gamlem is a former member of the SHRM Board of Directors and a former chair of SHRM’s Workplace Diversity Committee. She is the co-author of Roadmap to Success: 5 Steps to Putting Action into your Affirmative Action Program (GEMS Group Ltd., 2004) and Roadmap to Success: Briefing Managers about Affirmative Action Results (GEMS Group Ltd., 2004) and has more than 25 years of HR experience.

Phased retirement still poses a hurdle for employers, she told commissioners. While it’s a concept that interests many organizations and employees, the Pension Protection Act still leaves important legal questions unresolved, she said. This is causing many employers to wait for additional guidance before implementing such a program.

However, there are practices that organizations can adopt to recruit, retain and manage older workers, she said. Her written testimony cited a 2010 SHRM/AARP survey of HR professionals that found that offering part-time positions and hiring retired employees as consultants or temporary workers are the most popular strategies among organizations for recruiting and retaining workers who are past traditional retirement age.

SHRM has been increasingly vocal about encouraging workplaces to adopt flex policies— such as voluntary paid leave programs, telecommuting and policies that assist employees in balancing work and personal obligations—while discouraging government mandates to employers to implement flex arrangements.

Providing retirement savings or pension plans with specific provisions for older workers is another strategy popular with organizations, Gamlem said.

In addition, she pointed to creative tactics such as “unretirement” parties that a Hartford, Conn.-based company throws to entice its retirees and other older adults to join its pool of part-time and temporary workers as a way to meet its staffing needs.

Other best practices included in her written statements:

  • Using more focused forms of recruitment, such as participating in career fairs geared to older adults.
  • Encouraging workers who are considered experts in specific areas to mentor staffers or remain on call after they leave the organization.
  • Offering business resource or affinity groups as a way for older workers to discuss methods the employer can use to make the workplace more accommodating to older workers’ needs.
  • Basing layoffs on the organization’s needs and employees’ skills, knowledge, ability, reliability, performance and length of service.

Deborah Russell, AARP’s director of workforce issues, shared employer best practices during her testimony.

Bon Secours Health System in Richmond, Va., for example, offers three-hour work shifts for its nurses, Russell said.

Cornell University keeps in touch with its 3,850 retirees and offers temporary assignments, full- and part-time work and consulting and telecommuting opportunities. Other perks include library privileges for life, invitations to university events, retirement planning and volunteer opportunities.

And an international trucking company reconfigured its assembly line so that older mechanics unable to slide under trucks to conduct diagnostics could stand while performing their work, she said.

Age Discrimination ‘Definitely a Factor’

However, unemployment among older workers age 55 and older is more than 7 percent, Russell told the EEOC. Among older men, unemployment is more than 8 percent, she added.

“Compared to workers of other ages, older workers have seen the sharpest increase in their unemployment rate and, once jobless, suffer much longer spells of unemployment than younger workers,” she said.

On average, jobless workers 55 and older were unemployed for 44.3 weeks in October 2010, nearly three months longer than the average 33.2 weeks for workers under age 55, she noted.

AARP has been reaching out to its constituency with career fairs, workshops and one-on-one counseling for job seekers, Russell said, “and our members tell us that age discrimination is definitely a factor in their difficulties finding a new job.”

Jessie Williams, a 64-year-old man who was laid off from his job of 31 years at a Las Vegas waste disposal company, told commissioners that age discrimination dealt a heavier blow to him than the racial discrimination he faced growing up as an African-American in Arkansas.

He had earned job-related awards, learned computer skills to aid in dispatch work, trained younger workers and worked weekends and holidays. He felt betrayed when he was told he wasn’t needed any longer, “that they were going to ‘get rid of the old foremen and get some new blood.’ ”

Williams, who found another job out of state, said he didn’t realize he had job rights until the EEOC approached him. He became part of a successful EEOC suit filed on behalf of more than 20 workers that Republic Services had discharged because of age. The company settled the suit for nearly $3 million.

“Hard-working men and women should never be harassed at work or forced out of their jobs on account of their age,” EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien said during the nearly four-hour hearing.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.