New Ideas Draw Older Workers

February 27, 2004
Many economists say that in the coming decade, worker shortages will cause companies to scramble for ways to recruit and retain older workers. At Baptist Health South Florida, a nonprofit health-care provider with 10,000 employees, preparation for the graying of the American workforce is already in full swing.

    Unlike most industries, health care faces severe worker shortages right now, especially in areas like nursing and technology. But at Baptist, turnover is only 9 percent annually, about half the industry average. Turnover among employees 50 and older is only 7 percent. And employee surveys indicate that the most satisfied workers at Baptist are those over 50.

    The company is taking advantage of new pension laws that can encourage older employees to stick around longer. Like many other firms, the company used to lose older workers because of a quirk in the laws governing defined-contribution retirement plans. Employees who wanted to tap into their retirement savings before age 65 had to officially retire. Many found other jobs. Baptist quickly changed its plan in 2002, when a new law allowed workers to draw from the plan at age 59 1/2. Some older workers use this policy to reduce their work hours while using their retirement savings to keep a steady salary. "It’s better to have a part-time worker than no worker at all," says Carl Gustafson, corporate vice president of human resources.

    Baptist also implemented a "Bridgement of Service" policy, which allows anyone who quits and comes back within five years to pick up where they left off in terms of seniority and benefits. Any worker can also accrue up to 1,000 hours of paid time off, which some use for longer vacations as they near retirement to test whether they want that much free time.

    Eighteen months ago, Baptist added two recruiters who deal only with internal transfers. About 25 percent of their time is devoted to helping older workers move to less physically demanding jobs. Two years ago, Baptist installed spring lifts in laundry containers so that housekeepers wouldn’t have to bend down to retrieve the loads. A $500,000 pilot project is under way with "minimal lift" equipment that helps nurses move heavy patients. Gustafson says that such initiatives could reduce the company’s yearly $1.2 million costs for workers’ compensation claims.

    The company also takes care to give older workers due process. Any worker with 15 years of service cannot be demoted, fired or have a pay cut without a review by a three-person committee of high-ranking executives, including Baptist’s president. Gustafson notes that 25 percent of Baptist’s 10,000 employees are over age 50, a number that will climb in the coming years. The new policies are not just right, they are necessary, he says. As the workforce ages, many companies will find that they must do similar things to fill key positions. And they couldn’t find a better model than Baptist Health, the 2004 Optimas Award winner for Innovation.

Workforce Management, March 2004, pp. 44-46 -- Subscribe Now!