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A Company Where Retirement is a Dirty Word
The Average Worker: Loyal, and Age 73

By Julie Flaherty
Needham, Mass.

As far as he can recall, Frederick Hartman has never dismissed an employee. In its 65-year history, his company has never had a layoff. And he has never asked anyone to retire.

Quite the contrary. When Mary Boyt retired recently - at the age of 89 - Mr. Hartman was not at all happy about it.

"That got me ticked off," he said, shaking his head in disgust. "Her daughter pushed her into retirement. She was a great worker. I hope I'm as sharp at that age."

Mr. Hartman is president of the Vita Needle Company in Needham. And at Vita Needle, there is no such thing as mandatory retirement; even the suggestion is scoffed at. After all, the average age here is 73. Most of the 35 employees joined the small factory as a second career, after retiring from jobs as engineers, nurses, bakers' or what have you.

Not that Mr. Hartman who is 45, is just being nice. He says he recruits older people because he finds them loyal, responsible and eligible for Medicare - eliminating the need for company-paid health coverage.

Rosa Finnegan, a retired waitress and a widow, took a job here a year ago because her Social Security check was not paying the taxes on her Needham home.

Like most of those who work and chat at the wood benches on the factory floor, Ms. Finnegan praises the flexible hours, the plant's location a few miles from her home and the opportunity just to keep busy. The work, assembling small metal components by hand, is less than exciting, but, she asked "Who else is going to hire me at 86?"

Actually, in today's tight labor market, someone just might. The national unemployment rate was 4.6 percent in November, the lowest since 1970, and as it has fallen, employers have sought out workers in age brackets they might not otherwise have considered. In 1995, some 3.8 million people 65 and older had jobs; that is 2.9 percent of that age group, up from 2.5 percent a decade earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When the American Association of Retired Persons Bulletin asked its readers to complete a questionnaire about their employment, 2,700 people working after age 65 wrote in, many of them former retirees. "We think it's a growing phenomenon as the labor market tightens and employers are finding it hard to fill jobs," said, Robert Lewis, senior editor of the publication.

At Vita Needle, though, hiring older workers is nothing new. In 1934, Mr. Hartman's great-grandfather, Oscar E. Nutter, came out of retirement from the textile industry to start the business, which makes a variety of industrial and medical needles. He was 68, and he ran the company until three days before his death at 96. His nephew Carl Nutter worked until he was 88. And despite "till gall bladder surgery recently, Fred Hartman's father, Mason, at 72, the employee with the most seniority, was soon back at his desk keeping the books.

When Fred Hartman took over the family business 10 years ago, he saw that recruiting retirees would be in keeping with the company's experience with older workers. Hartman hired Bill Ferson, who was 68, as a design engineer. Now 79, Mr. Ferson is still here because, he said, "they treat us like human beings."

Lena Ferrara, who is 73, said Mr. Hartman called her not long after she left her job At an oil company and asked her to help out.  Last week, she put in 40 hours. "He didn't gave me a chance to retire," she said.

Having a staff of predominantly older workers has its ups and downs, Mr. Hartman acknowledged. But he is committed to them.

'They are motivated, they take care of the equipment; they don't have the P.T.A. meetings or the kids in day care," Mr. Hartman said. Most important, he said, coming to work is a high priority" for them.

According to a 1993 report by the Commonwealth Fund in New York, most employers surveyed nationally said workers over 55 were better than younger workers when it came to work attitude, turnover and absenteeism. Another report by the fund found that of older Americans who did not work, one in seven was willing and able to do so.

"This work is kind of like therapy," Ms. Ferrara said. "Getting up early, getting dressed every day, not sitting around in your pajamas. It was too boring to be at home when no one's there. You clean your house for two days in a row, and then what?"

''Almost all the older workers in Vita Needle's nonunion work force are part-time, some working as little as 15 hours a week. Two-thirds of them are women; with the workers' pay ranging from $6 to $12 an hour The company promotes flex time, giving workers a lot of leeway in their choice of workdays and hours. Many employees have keys to the building, so some come in before daylight while others work into the evening; the last ones out shut off the lights.

Older people are more likely to leave jobs that are physically demanding or have rigid schedules, and more likely to re-enter jobs with flexible schedules," said Diane Herz, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The downside of such laissez-faire scheduling, Mr. Hartman said, is occasionally not having all the hands he needs when he needs them. "Summers and winters are harder on us," he said. "People want to go to Florida, or go down to Cape Cod with their grandchildren for a few weeks."

But his workers he noted, do not need as much supervision. "People are letting themselves in at 5 in the morning," he said. "I'm not here telling them what to do."

A paper tacked on the bulletin board reads: "Remember, old folks are worth a fortune - with silver in their hair, gold in their teeth, stones in their kidneys, lead in their feet and gas in their stomachs." And physical limitations of aging do not go unnoticed. Jim Connolly, a design engineer, remembers one woman who would doze off at her workbench. And, he said, "you get the occasional oddball who makes you a little nervous."

Because the factory is housed in what was once a second-floor movie theater, "the stairs are a bone of contention," Mr. Hartman said. Although no previous experience in the field is necessary, applicants must be able to make it up the steps.

The aging building that houses the business has no loading dock - it did not even have hot water until the late 80's. It is also cramped for space, the former theater stage is packed with yards of steel tubing. But moving to another site would mean losing employees; many walk or take a short ride to work. Last year, the company, which had been renting its space, bought the whole building. "We're in it for the long haul," Mr. Hartman said.

Older workers, of course, can be more resistant to something new. "Change isn't always easy when you have a labor force that is advanced in years," Mr. Hartman said. Mary Bianchi, 76, the office manager, threatened to quit when he replaced her typewriter with a word processor. There were arguments over the addition of the fax machine ("No one thought it would work"), the air-conditioner, even the microwave. "I still think a third of our people won't go next to it," Mr. Hartman said.

On the other hand, the company has remade itself in recent years. In the 1980's, the spread of AIDS caused a huge shift toward the use of disposable needles, making obsolete the re-usable medical needles that were Vita's specialty.

To reinvent itself, Vita found other uses for its type of product - developing tubes for embalming, tagging salmon, vaccinating wild animals and injecting foam into car seats. One customer, Sea World, contracts with Vita for 4-foot-long needles used to medicate killer whales.

The workers, many of them widows, hardly blush when discussing the special needles for piercing navels, noses, tongues and, um, other body parts. "We're kind of a player in that market," Mr. Hartman said, with a slight embarrassment.

By adapting to new manufacturing procedures, the staff has proved itself as versatile as the products. Mr. Ferson used his 30 years of experience in a machine shop to create a gauge that allows him to work with tubing the size of a human hair.

With its new Customer base, the company has grown to 35 employees, from 15 in 1984. Sales have doubled in the last five years, and are expected to grow 15 to 20 percent this year.

More change is on the way. Although Ms. Bianchi, the office manager, keeps the company paperwork in files on a shelf behind her desk, computerization is in the works. As he helped her pull down a box, Mr. Hartman 31 years her junior, joked about when she would retire.

"You're here until three figures, Mary, three figures," he said.

She smiled and said, "You'll have to put the elevator in for me."

vita needle in the new york times

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