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Older workers still punch clock for many different reasons

September 22, 2018

PITTSBURGH (AP) — At 86 years old, Bill Priatko jump-starts every workday with a vigorous three-mile walk and 155 Marine-style pushups, getting energized for another five-hour shift working the soda fountain at Kennywood Park.

“I don’t call it work,” he said. “Really, it’s like a hobby. I come over here every morning, five days a week, Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Just enough for me to enjoy it. And I can’t wait to see the kids and work with them.”

He starts the shift with a ritual that Rodgers and Hammerstein might appreciate and that his young co-workers seem to enjoy. “I sing this little ditty to them: ‘Oh, what a beautiful morning. Oh, what a beautiful day. I’ve got a wonderful feeling. Everything’s going our way.’”

And they all go “Yeah!”

For Priatko, a former Pittsburgh Steeler, the job at the West Mifflin amusement park is a retirement gig. He is part of a fast-growing segment of workers who remain in the workplace well past the traditional retirement age.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for those ages 55 and over was 3.1 percent as of July. By comparison, the rate for that segment of workers hit a record high 7.2 percent in December 2009 during the Great Recession.

In July, the unemployment rate for older workers was actually lower than 3.9 percent overall rate for the entire U.S. population.

There are different factors at work in that trend.

At a time when the number of job openings in the U.S. exceeds the number of unemployed Americans, employers are either holding on to older workers or inviting retirees back into the workforce.

“Demand for older workers has increased significantly in the past few years,” said Andrew Sassaman, Pittsburgh branch manager for Robert Half staffing and employment agency. “People are living longer, and a lot of older workers are not ready to sail off into retirement.”

The jobs they take aren’t always the kind that support a family. “People in their 30s and 40s need full-time work,” Sassaman said. “Older people are willing to work 15 to 20 hours a week and cost employers less in terms of benefits.”

That doesn’t mean they don’t need the money. A 2015 study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found 12.2 percent of seniors who died at 85 or older had no assets left, and 9.1 percent had outstanding debt averaging $6,368, not including a mortgage.

‘There is a social aspect to work’

Eight years ago, Dora Joy, 75, was bored sitting around her Ambridge home spending her days watching TV.

Her husband of 38 years had died when she was 59, and she had retired from her job dispatching for a trucking company. She playfully told her niece, who had worked at the Eat’n Park in Edgeworth for 40 years, that one day she was coming to the restaurant to be the “hostess with the mostess.”

“So she calls me one day and said, ‘Aunt Dora, they have an opening for a hostess. Come get an interview,’” Joy said. She got hired that day.

She is on her feet for a six-hour shift that can turn into eight hours. She doesn’t usually take a break because she doesn’t need one. She enjoys her job so much she has taken only two days of vacation in eight years — to clean her house — even though she is entitled to paid vacation days.

One of the things she likes most are the flexible hours. But there are other perks.

“They feed me every day,” Joy said. “Every day I eat for 50 percent off. I think that’s wonderful. I don’t have to cook. I’m a widow. Who wants to cook for themselves?

“And I have made one of my best friends working here. She used to work at Burger King. She’s in the bakery working here now. We’re like sisters,” she said.

Before Joy retired, she had worked as a truck dispatcher, for an attorney, at a bank and for Goodwill Industries.

“I have had a lot of good jobs, and I have loved every position I was in,” she said. “But at my age, this is a good position to be in.”

The four-legged stool

Jacquelyn James, co-director of the Center on Aging & Work at Boston College, said the traditional idea of the three-legged stool of retirement once included Social Security, employee pensions and personal savings.

Times have changed, and so has the three-legged stool.

Although pensions remain relatively common in public sector government jobs, pensions that pay a lifetime fixed income have been disappearing from private sector jobs since the 1980s when 401k company savings plans came onto the scene.

Many of today’s retirees were caught in the middle of the transition.

Some people who lost their pensions may not have enrolled in the company 401k savings plans at all. Or if they did, they may not have saved enough through those plans.

“Now there is a fourth leg to the stool,” James said. “The fourth leg is work. People are working for a few more years than they thought they were going to.”

Still, she noted, there are upsides to work that are not financial.

“We live in a work-oriented society, and work confers a lot of self-esteem,” she said. “Many people identify with their work. A lot of people have their friends at work and colleagues they like to see every day. There is a social aspect to work that is also important in understanding why people want to keep working.”

No plans to retire

After serving as director of the Nationality Rooms and Intercultural Exchange program at the University of Pittsburgh since 1965, Maxine Bruhns, 94, has no plans to retire.

She is in the office around 7:30 a.m. each day and usually goes home around 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. She spends her mornings editing publicity material. Her assistant prints out emails and she answers them with handwritten letters — because she does not deal with computers.

Then she goes to meetings to oversee the construction of the Filipino room, which will be the 31st nationality room installed in Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning in Oakland.

The Nationality Rooms celebrate the cultures of the different immigrant groups represented in region, and one room usually takes eight to 10 years and at least $500,000 to complete.

“I think the fact that we have now completed 30 rooms and they have brought the different cultures into the university like nothing else has, it has inspired students to travel to China, India, Africa, Japan and all over the world, in many cases when they have never left the country,” Bruhns said.

Helping older workers get hired

Some men and women 55 and older looking for employment realize their options in the workplace are limited, especially when they have little prior work experience.

That is primarily the group that the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh has for many years been helping through its Urban Seniors Jobs Program. Most of the 168 people now in the program are between age 62 and 63. Most are women, and most have never been employed before.

“I think that’s mostly because they wake up to an empty nest and they need something else to do,” said Rodney Brown, who coordinates the job training program from the Urban League’s Downtown headquarters.

During the time when participants are training for occupations as clerical workers, cooks, administrative assistants, maintenance workers, security guards and retail workers, the Urban League pays them a $7.25 an hour wage for up to 20 hours a week.

The training program can last up to 48 months, but Brown says the average training period lasts about 24 months.

Most trainees end up getting entry-level positions paying between $10 and $12 an hour.

“I try to sell the older staff to employers as workers who can help with their younger staff,” Brown said.

He sees his senior trainees as people who have a strong work ethic. “They are coming to work on time. They are staying at work. They are not going to leave early or take 45 minutes extra for lunch. They are not going to be calling in sick.

“They are the most dependable workers I have ever seen,” he said. “We’ve gone through years at a time with no absences or tardiness. They are amazing.”

Coming back around

Priatko was initially hired at Kennywood 71 years ago when he was a 15-year-old junior at North Braddock Scott High School.

He spent five years assigned to a paid parking lot and a refreshment stand. He had to quit after joining the football team at Pitt.

Then 17 years ago, the staff at Kennywood reached out to some of the park’s alumni to see if they were interested in coming back.

“I said, ‘Amen,’” Priatko said.

His wife, Helen, of 57 years died four years ago. The job at Kennywood plays a part in filling the void.

“This job keeps me young,” he said.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2N8RiAj

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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