Jean Olecki rides the RTA to work five days a week. She's employed in the returns department at Bonne Bell Inc.'s Westlake plant. Dependable as the sunrise, she's never late and hardly ever misses a day. That certainly sets her apart from the average worker.
Moreover, Olecki, who's been with Bonne Bell for 38 years, is extremely loyal to the company, visibly proud of what she does, and quick to announce that she loves her job. Her boss considers her an ideal employee. But what really makes her a standout is that Jean Olecki is 90 years old.
"There's not enough to do at home," says this grandmother of four. "I'd rather be working. It's what I've done my whole life. My son and daughter-in-law want to take care of me, but I can take care of myself. Instead of sitting around feeling bored and sorry for myself because I'm getting old, I like being here doing something useful and earning my own money."
Olecki's not alone in her desire to remain productive. She's one of 80 seniors employed in the Retirees Production Line program at Bonne Bell, which says it's the largest family-owned cosmetics and beauty products company in the country. The initiative was launched by former CEO Jess Bell Sr., who now serves as chairman emeritus, during a period when the company had turned to temporary help to fill orders. The program celebrated its eighth anniversary this spring, and has saved the company more than $1 million since its inception, company officials say.
"It was one of the best business decisions I ever made," says Bell Sr.
At 80, he's long past the traditional retirement age himself but has no plans to spend his days on the golf course.
"It's a great way for us to give to the community but the seniors have given us so much more in return. They have all the pluses you look for in the people you hire, and none of the minuses."
Government data shows that adults age 55 and over are claiming a growing segment of the labor market. There are 22 million in that age bracket working, the largest number on record since 1948, when Washington started keeping count. According to the AARP, 69 percent of those they surveyed in 2002 plan to work past retirement age. And business is likely to need them. Estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predict a shortfall of younger workers by 2010. So-called "third-agers" will be essential to fill the gap, with adults over 55 forming 46.6 percent of the workforce, according to the National Older Worker Career Center.
The average age of participants in the Bonne Bell program is 72. The majority are women and many are widows. Some work because they need the income, or like having a little extra money for themselves or their grandchildren. But for others, it's not really about the money. They choose to work because being a wage-earner gives them a sense of dignity and self-worth, while the workplace offers opportunities for companionship and the comfort of a meaningful routine.
"We like being needed," says Mary Darwish, who'll turn 75 in July. "This job is a blessing for all of us and I thank Jess Bell every night for realizing what we have to offer."
The seniors come in either from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m., or from noon to 4 p.m., putting in 20 hours a week bagging, boxing, sorting, and packaging. When things get busy, they can volunteer for an extra Saturday shift. Staring pay is $7.75 per hour and tops out at $9 for those who have been on the job at least three years.
Bell Sr., who continues to oversee the program while his son Jess Jr. runs the $100 million company, would like to see that reach $10 per hour. They're eligible for a 401(k) profit sharing plan, get paid time off, plus discounts on Bonne Bell products. What they don't get as part-timers are health care benefits. Since most receive Medicare or Medicaid, this is not a problem for them, but it represents a significant savings for their employer.
Working in small teams, they run four machines and handle an average of 30,000 pieces of product daily. Since the program's inception, only two people have had to leave because they couldn't keep up. On-the-job performance is comparable to their younger counterparts but they're more reliable and cost-effective too, according to Dave Fedders, Bonne Bell's director of manufacturing.
"They are held accountable to the same standards as every other employee at Bonne Bell," says Fedders. "The absentee rate in this group is very low, as is turnover, and their execution is consistent. For them, there are clear social and emotional benefits as well as financial rewards. But we're a business and if it wasn't good for our bottom line we wouldn't stick with it."
Based on the results of its 2003 Older Workers Survey, the Society for Human Resource Management reported that a majority of HR professionals see many advantages in hiring older workers: 72 percent said they bring invaluable experience; 68 percent said they were more reliable; and 69 percent said they had a stronger work ethic.
It's that work ethic that really sets them apart, says Bob Wotsch, production manager for the retirees program.
"When Jess Bell tapped me for this position, I wasn't sure what to expect." says Wotsch, a 39-year veteran of Bonne Bell. "But these are simply a terrific group of hard-working people. Most arrive here early every day and do their best to get here no matter what the weather. They're conscientious, quality-conscious, uncomplaining, and take great pride in their ability to contribute."
No wonder this gray-haired golden-age demographic is now being referred to by many as "the silver solution." Though the concept has been slow to catch on, a recent New York Times article reported that some corporations such as Home Depot, Borders, and Walgreen's are recruiting older workers. But Jess Bell Sr. was ahead of the curve. That's not unusual for him. He instituted a company fitness program 25 years ago, long before "wellness" became a buzzword and health a corporate concern.
The seniors program originated in 1996 at a time when the firm was shorthanded. Bell Sr. was 72 and his wife Julie was 65.
"That's when it hit me," says Bell. "If we could do it, so could others. We'd tried hiring temps but it wasn't satisfactory. All they wanted was a paycheck. They'd come in one week, disappear the next, and put the minimum into whatever they were doing. Outsourcing was expensive. But in the beginning, not everyone bought into the idea of hiring retirees. I was the driving force. An organizational change like this must come from the top down. I don't believe this could have taken off without my endorsement."
A key element in the program's success is organizing the seniors in a discrete and separate group, easily identifiable in their maroon smocks, with their own work area. There's a lot of camaraderie, friendly competition, and mutual support that translates into team spirit. They enjoy one another's company, and celebrate birthdays and special occasions together.
"They are more comfortable being with people their own age, who understand their situation and share many of the same problems and pleasures in life," Wotsch says. "From a management standpoint, I handle this group a little differently than I would younger workers. They appreciate being treated with the respect they deserve."
"Bob has a great rapport with the seniors," says Bell Sr. "He's patient, sensitive, and most of all he understands that you can't supervise them as if they were a bunch of 20-year-olds."