Snowbirds work where it's warm

One firm, two locations adds up to a healthy work arrangement for a handful of seniors.

Six months of the year, John Johns works as a CVS pharmacist in Sea Isle City, N.J., continuing a career there that spans nearly 30 years. Every November, he bids his co-workers goodbye and heads to Cocoa Beach, Fla., where he and his wife, Pat, enjoy winter in the sun.

But three days a week, while other snowbirds relax on the beach or the golf course, Mr. Johns works. He logs 30 hours a week at CVS pharmacies in the area. That still gives the couple time to enjoy their 18-foot boat and other leisure activities. "They allow me to come down here and work and go up there [to New Jersey] to work," Johns says. "They accommodate me, and I'm very flexible for them. It's a real good marriage."

That accommodation comes through an unusual snowbird program, which lets employees shuttle between two locations on a seasonal basis. This winter about 300 CVS workers are joining a small but growing group of snowbirds who eagerly answer to alarm clocks and time clocks, even on vacation. They like the structure, sense of purpose, and monetary rewards a job brings. "A lot of older people are working because they really enjoy the work," Johns says. "I enjoy the money, too, but the money is not the primary factor."

So far, retailers and healthcare providers account for most of those hiring snowbirds. But workplace specialists expect the trend to spread as labor shortages loom and baby boomers age.

"If you have highly trained people who are already in the family of the company, it can be a pretty seamless way for employers to meet what can be unpredictable staffing needs," says Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of Boston College's Center on Aging and Work.

Hiring snowbirds, she adds, "stretches people's imagination about what is possible when you think about flexibility. Flexibility is not limited to only a daily basis or a weekly basis. It opens up the conversation of flexibility over a year and over the course of a whole career."

A study about working in retirement by AARP, a lobbying group for seniors, found that a strong majority of respondents wanted flexible work arrangements. Emily Allen, director of workforce programs at AARP, calls sharing employees an "interesting, promising practice."

Employers emphasize that they are not simply doing snowbirds a favor by hiring them.

"People ask me, 'Why are you doing this?' " says Steve Wing, director of government programs for CVS. "This is really business. It's not a community involvement thing. They have the work ethic we're looking for. They're very good at customer service. Older customers like to come in and see people their same age."

In the early 1990s, less than 7 percent of CVS workers were over age 50. By 2005 that figure had risen to 17 percent. "Some need to work," Mr. Wing says. "Some just need to be surrounded by other people."

The company's snowbirds are not entry-level employees. "We're not just using them to pull in carts," Wing says. They include greeting-card specialists, cosmetic consultants, photo supervisors, and managers.

Not all employees who head south for the winter want to work. "Sometimes they just need three or four months off," Wing says. "They can go to Florida, and then we'll rehire them."

Suzanne Fontaine, a pharmacy technician, spends seven months working for CVS in Cocoa Beach and five months at a CVS in Coventry, R.I. In Florida, she puts in three days a week, eight hours a day. "I like the interaction with people," Mrs. Fontaine says. "I wouldn't want to just not do anything down here. I feel I'm helping out. It keeps you going. I'm keeping my skills up." She calls her earnings "play money, golf money."

Her husband, Ralph, also works during their stay in Florida. He spends three days a week from 11 a.m to 5 p.m. as a ranger at a golf course. He describes the job as "keeping people up to speed if they start lagging." He adds, "It can be annoying at times, but it's also a lot of fun. I like to keep myself busy. You do a little bit of yard work and then you go out and mix with people."

Last winter, Mr. Fontaine held a part-time job as a security guard for the Florida Space Coast Philharmonic. He finds jobs by word of mouth, asking his golf friends, "Hey, what's going on? Anyone looking for work?"

The Home Depot employed about 300 snowbirds last year. Some worked full time, others part time. Those interested coordinate the transfer with their human resources manager.

Bealls, a Florida department store chain with 82 stores, hires about 750 snowbirds each season, says Jim Simpson, a vice president. Most work part time. About 90 percent are women. "We have had some of the same folks working for us for 15 or 20 years," he says.

Nearly every winter since 1997, Emilie Thompson of Minden City, Mich., has worked as a registered nurse in Tucson, Ariz., where she and her husband spend five months of the year. During that time, he works in Phoenix as an electrician.

"I love coming back every year," Mrs. Thompson says. "They're always glad to have me back. I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have a job."

She is part of a seasonal worker program with Carondelet Health Network. Registered nurses and physical therapists agree to work three, six, or nine months. Depending on the time of year, anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of the nursing staff includes seasonal workers, says Jane Levine, human resources director. That adds up to more than 100 seasonal workers at a time. "The seasonals tend to be seasoned - no pun intended," Ms. Levine says. "They have been a nurse for a while. Like any new hire, they have to be trained and assimilated. But for the most part they're well received."

Retirees are not the only ones who benefit from a willingness to be flexible.

"This kind of experimentation is exciting for workers at all stages of their careers," Ms. Pitt-Catsouphes says. "Parents with school-age children face a similar dilemma. Their school calendars are different from their summer calendars. If we think of flexibility only on a daily basis, we're going to miss that."

At Borders bookstores, college students can work during the academic year at a store near their campus. During the summer, some transfer to a store near their home.

"When you have good people, you want to do what you can to retain them," says Anne Roman, a spokeswoman at Borders. "If part of that is helping them connect with the opportunity at two or more store locations, we're happy to do that."

Some caregivers also need to divide their time. "Maybe part of the year they need to be somewhere else, caregiving," Ms. Allen at AARP says. By being flexible, a firm can retain that employee.

Whatever jobs snowbirds hold, their presence helps to dispel stereotypes about older workers.

"It does take an older person longer to learn," Wing says. "They want to do everything right and make sure they don't make a mistake. We'll spend a little more time training then, and then they've got it. When they've got it, you're in business."

Even so, minor challenges sometimes arise. Wing notes that most managers are in their mid-30s, on average. Some regard an older employee as a grandparent. They might say, "I can't tell my grandparent to do that." A management training program now covers situations like that.

Johns, the pharmacist, emphasizes the importance of earning respect. "If you're responsible and you're caring, that shows through. Age has no boundaries on that."

Wing echoes that sentiment: "The bottom line of this is, we're looking for good people. If we can keep them, and they can help us, why not? This is the future."

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