Road to a job smoother but still steep for elderly

Max Ewald delivers Pizza Hut pizzas with flair. As his pleased customers look on, he gets out of his truck, pops up a folding table, and slides out the steaming box with a wave of his arm. He then delivers the pizza on its table to the door. Mr. Ewald is 80 years old. ``Five years ago, that would be unthinkable,'' says David Zemelman, senior vice-president for human resources at Pizza Hut Inc., based in Wichita, Kan. But now, because of the labor crunch, employers are hiring workers they hadn't considered before. This new resource of employees includes the elderly, middle-aged homemakers, the disabled, and those close to retirement.

According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), 6 million of its 26 million members are now working and 6 million others wish they were. A 1985 Gallup poll of older employees' attitudes showed that one-third of all retirees aged 55 and over wished they had not retired.

At the same time, the economy's service sector is expanding, creating a large number of new jobs. But the service companies' traditional source of labor - the teen-ager - is shrinking. This age group has decreased 20 percent since 1960.

Still, the road to employment gets steeper as people approach retirement age. According to the AARP, only 11 percent of those over 65 already work. And this is heavily concentrated in the service and trade sector.

``A fast-food job isn't interesting or challenging enough for everyone,'' says David Gamse, head of the senior employment services division at the association. ``But this trend has to move into other industries as well.''

The elderly are often discouraged from working, because they fear too much extra income will threaten their social security benefits. A person between 65 and 69 can earn only about $7,000 before he or she starts losing social security benefits. Once they go over that amount, for every $2 earned, $1 is subtracted from their benefits, half of which becomes taxable above certain income levels.

The penalty will be eased in 1990, however, when it will change to $1 off for every $3 earned over the maximum amount.

Prejudice and discrimination because of age, Mr. Gamse says, also make it very difficult for elderly people to enter the work force. A recent study for AARP found that while employer attitudes toward elderly workers are overwhelmingly good, complaints of age discrimination to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Center increased 71 percent from 1981 to 1984.

The study, done by the marketing and social research firm of Yankelovich, Skelly & White Inc., asked top management in company personnel departments how they regarded older workers, and found that 90 percent of the 400 companies surveyed believed older workers were ``cost effective.''

But the study also showed that employers are often wary of an older worker's ability to adapt to the technological and competitive change of today's business environment.

``There are certain myths about older workers, that they're all slow, accident prone, and not able to keep up,'' says Donald Doyle, president of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But one by one, says AARP's Gamse, these myths are being dispelled. A recent AARP study found that those 55 and older accounted for only 9 percent of workplace injuries, despite their making up 13 percent of the work force.

Still, many companies have merely stepped up their aggressive recruitment techniques, offering higher wages and flexible hours to compete for younger workers. But according to Census Bureau statistics, if companies don't adjust their hiring practices, they may find themselves running out of potential employees. By the year 2020, the number of Americans over age 65 will have doubled, and 25 percent of the work force will be elderly, the bureau estimates.

Companies that have in the past relied on a young corps of service employees will no longer have much choice, says Bill Fisher, executive vice-president of the National Restaurant Association. ``All possible markets are being scoured to fill the widening gap.''

Filling this gap has given many elderly people the chance to do away with false impressions employers might have of them.

Companies, especially those in fast food, that are actively recruiting older workers are finding them to be productive and cost effective.

``People who were once considered old by society are no longer being considered old and unproductive,'' Mr Fisher says.

The elderly ``provide a stabilizing effect and bring a good work ethic with them,'' says Mr. Doyle at Kentucky Fried Chicken. The company hires retirees as part-time managers and has them work 20 to 30 hours a week, with full benefits.

``They've had previous work experience and are used to the personal discipline of going to work every day,'' Fisher says.

``I know a lot of Polaroid retirees who are doing part-time work in food service,'' says Joseph Perkins, corporate retirement manager at the Polaroid Company in Cambridge, Mass., which does not have a mandatory retirement age. ``They like their 20-hour-a-week grillman jobs,'' he says.

``Elderly people serving as hosts tend to be much more gracious,'' observes Mr. Zemelman at Pizza Hut.

McDonald's Corporation runs a nationwide ``McMasters'' program. Safeway Stores Inc. in California, and Cullum Companies, a Dallas drug and grocery store chain, have less formal programs. ``We've made arrangements with local retirement homes to bring people in for certain jobs,'' says Michael Kissner, a spokesman at Cullom Company.

``We've made an objective of bringing in 1,500 older workers. I think it's going to be a fairly easy thing to do and very good for the older worker, too,'' Mr. Doyle says.

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