In the Job Market, Older Is Better : Companies Prefer--and Applaud--Mature Workers

Times Staff Writer

The labor market has a new hot commodity: older workers.

And employers are finding them a bonanza--in productivity, reliability and enthusiasm.

In recognition of the new appreciation of the value of older workers in our society, this is "National Employ the Older Worker Week," duly proclaimed by Gov. George Deukmejian and promoted by groups such as the Los Angeles Council on Careers for Older Americans and the California Department of Aging, among others.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 1983, the latest year information is available, indicate that 26.7% of the civilian labor force is 55 years or older, including 5.4% over 65.

They seem to be doing well: The American Assn. of Retired Persons this week released a nationwide survey of 400 U.S. corporations that show employees over age 50 are highly valued for their experience, knowledge and work habits.

The study gives older workers their highest marks for productivity, attendance, commitment to quality and good work performance and contradicts the notion that older employees increase salary and benefit costs. Indeed, only 16% of employers said a 55-year-old employee was costly to insure, as against 34% who consider a 30-year-old worker with two dependents as expensive to insure.

A study by the American Psychological Assn. backs up the case for older employees. Two psychologists at the State University of New York reviewed 13 studies on the relationship between age and job performance and found evidence that job performance was found to increase as employees got older.

In line with these findings, the battle against age discrimination is escalating. The American Assn. of Retired Persons has filed amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs in several age discrimination suits, and just Thursday Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) held a televised House hearing to enlist public support of his bill to outlaw mandatory retirement at any age.

So much for statistics and studies. Let's get down to people.

Norman Weingarten is an ebullient 77-year-old who retired from the federal government after more than 41 years of service, got another job with an international accounting firm that insisted he retire at 65--and who, apparently, hasn't been jobless since. He has worked everywhere from a computer company to a delicatessen, a liquor store chain to a women's dress manufacturer.

For the past couple of years he has been a school crossing guard in Agoura Hills. During his free time over Christmas vacation he got another job distributing catalogues for a jewelry store.

Weingarten, who looks a good 20 years younger than his age, loves his job and the children he sees safely across the busy intersection of Thousand Oaks and Reyes Adobe boulevards. He had an easier location in a residential area, Agoura Hills City Manager Michael W. Huse said, but Weingarten preferred the more challenging corner.

Weingarten works from 7:45 to 9 a.m. ("My busiest time because the kids all start at the same hour") and from 2-2:45 and 3:15-3:45 in the afternoon. His major problem, he said, is older youngsters on bicycles who tend to be independent.

And what's it like when it rains? "WET!" he said emphatically.

Huse described Weingarten as "a dedicated and conscientious person . . . always alert to the children's safety." He also is their buddy, asking about their day at school and greeting their parents and siblings.

At Tommy's Flowers in Glendale, older employees are the rule. Dan Nelson, who co-manages the family business with his sister, explained why he has hired half a dozen older people, including several delivery drivers.

"My parents started the store 40 years ago," Nelson said. "We've seen our father handling teen-age drivers, and it used to be demolition derby.

"We got a phone call one day from a woman who saw our truck go through a yellow light at high speed, straight toward children crossing the street. The driver, a teen-ager, spun 180 degrees to avoid them. When he got back, we fired him.

"Two years ago we had so many accidents--four in one year--that the insurance company doubled our rates and put us on probation."

Then one day Nelson ran into Curtis Boston, who is in his 60s, at church. Boston asked if Tommy's needed a driver.

"It has worked out beautifully," Nelson said. "He has not had one accident, not one ticket. He is safer, much more interested, he stays later and he'll come in an extra day if we need him. He has really been a godsend."

Nelson also employs five other older workers, including Rose McNeill and Ruth Waters, in their 70s, who have worked at Tommy's for 15 years.

"It is meaningful to me," Nelson said, "because it had never occurred to me to hire older people. But we want no more young people in here."

Dave Parke, president of J & N Garden Equipment Inc. in Inglewood, inherited Charles De Lara, 78, six years ago when Parke purchased the company. De Lara has worked there as a salesman for 21 years after a career as a butcher for 30 years.

Parke describes Charlie De Lara glowingly "for his complete dedication to the good of the business, for his continuous good humor and helpful attitude . . . always early for work and late to leave . . . "

Parke admits he often gives the difficult customers to De Lara.

"Charlie will explain things over and over; older people have more patience," Parke said. "Also, we have a lot of older customers and he will sell them the type of stuff they need. If I try to sell a more expensive lawn mower the customer may think I'm pushing for a bigger profit, but Charlie can show them that the better model can make their work easier."

Hiring older employees is a matter of policy at All American Home Center in Downey, Jackie Weddle, personnel manager, said.

"We are a large home-improvement store with many do-it-yourself customers," she said. "We find that an older person who has worked a lot of years or just owned a home can be helpful to younger people.

"The older workers have experience and expertise. We have a retired plumber, for example, who can give good advice about supplies and how to do a job. A 19-year-old may know the answer but an older person has more credibility."

Of its 275 employees, Weddle said, the center has 10 over 65 and another 17 between 55 and 65.

At Versa Lock, a Northridge firm that manufactures locking systems for computers and office equipment, general manager Maureen Dimmett was reluctant to nominate the most valuable employee to be honored this week.

Mike Adams, president of the company, persuaded her that she was correct in choosing her father, Curtis Dimmett, 69.

Maureen Dimmett said her father retired from the sport fishing business several years ago when bad weather destroyed the Santa Monica pier.

"Mike asked if Dad wanted to come down and help out," she said. "He started in on manufacturing, he builds tables, whatever needs doing he does."

Does the company have any other older employees?

"No," said Maureen Dimmett, "unfortunately."

At the behest of the Los Angeles Council of Careers for Older Americans, employers nominated older workers to be honored this week. Each nominee, including those mentioned above, will receive a certificate, and some employers are arranging to take the workers to lunch or dinner.

While attention is focusing on the quality and contributions of older workers, their numbers have dropped dramatically in the past 30 years, said Helen Dennis, a specialist on aging, work and retirement at the USC Andrus Gerontology Center.

"One of the reasons is early retirement made possible by Social Security, pension benefits and financial incentive programs," she said. "At Arco alone, I'm told, the number of employees over 50 has dropped from 8,000 to 2,000 in the past eight to 10 months (largely because of retirement incentives).

"The schizophrenic part of all this is that as the number of older workers decreases, the demographers are saying that the baby boomers are aging and we are going to need to maximize these older workers."

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