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Vita Needle Finds Vital Employees Among the Elderly

November 1, 2000
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As a group, the senior citizens at Vita Needle Co. are still working to takehome weekly paychecks for many of the same reasons that those half their age do.

Some need the wages to supplement pensions or their Social Security checks.Others are saving for vacations or "those little extras." Still othersjust want to stay active in their "retirement."

To their employer, though, the mostly older workers at the Needham,Massachusetts, company represent a loyal, dedicated, and flexible workforce thatmeets the modern-day needs of a small manufacturing concern in a competitivemarket.

Of the 35 employees at Vita Needle, most on the factory floor are over 65.Many who spend their days turning slender rods of hollow steel into syringeneedles are well into their 80s.

These days, the average age at Vita Needle hovers around 76, but given thecompany’s reputation for providing "work for life," that numberedges up with each passing year, according to company president FrederickHartman.

"We haven’t had anyone hit 100 yet, but we’re hoping for that; itwould be just fine," said Hartman, one of the handful of company youngstersat age 48. "It’s not that we won’t hire someone younger. But whenyounger people come up the stairs and take a look at who we have working here,they generally say it’s not for them."

Hartman, however, didn’t adopt his gray-haired employee profile afterattending a business-management class or in response to an overactive sense ofcivic responsibility. Rather it happened by accident.

"We didn’t plan it this way, but we continue to hire senior citizensbecause it makes good business sense; we’re not a charity," he saidemphatically. "Our older workers have helped us build a strong company.More managers, particularly those having trouble finding responsible workers,ought to consider recruiting at their local senior citizen’s center. It works.It really works."

The average age of a Vita Needle worker began creeping upwards in the late1980s, Hartman recalled.

"When we first started hiring older workers, I was actually out lookingfor people willing to work part time," he said. "It just so happenedthe first ones who applied were people who had had other careers. Partly it haddo to the economy in Massachusetts at the time. We were in a recession and manycompanies were laying off their more senior workers."

Hartman is the fourth generation at the family-owned company, founded in 1932during the Great Depression through the Yankee ingenuity and foresight of hisgreat-grandfather and great-uncle. For the next 50 years, the businessflourished. The country’s fight against polio and smallpox in the 1950s and1960s spurred demand for hundreds of thousands of needle-tipped syringes todeliver precious immunizations.

But when the AIDS epidemic hit in the early 1980s, Vita Needle’s sales tooka sudden tumble.

"Our core business was reusable needles, and with AIDS, suddenly peopleweren’t so interested in our product any more," Hartman said.

By 1988, the company had shrunk to a shadow of its former self. Once theemployer of 50, Vita Needle had 11 names on its weekly payroll.

"We were at the point of either closing down or finding other productlines," Hartman said.

Hartman, who had graduated from Princeton in 1974 with a degree in civilengineering, struck a deal with his father and his uncle and came aboard aspresident.

"I was confident we could find other customers because we always had hadpeople knocking at our door looking for a needle for some interesting,non-medical applications," he said. "Our strength is our ability toproduce a quality product quickly and efficiently. We just never had to thinkabout other applications for our needles, because up until the mid-eighties wewere too busy meeting the demand for conventional medical syringe needles."

Today, Vita Needle’s customers range from sporting goods stores and golfpro shops, which use the needles to inflate basketballs and apply the adhesiveon golf club handgrips, to funeral homes, which order them for their embalmingsuites. The needles also are used in the manufacture of cars and in chemistrylabs. Sea World regularly orders a hefty 48-inch long needle for injectingkiller whales.

But 10 years ago, Hartman knew he was going to need some time to refocus thefamily business, and that meant finding employees who were willing to add andsubtract hours based on the workload.

Among the first to come aboard on a part-time basis was Bill Ferson. Then 68,Ferson had recently retired as a design engineer for measuring gauges. It washis wife’s idea that he get a job, he said.

"She was tired of having me hanging around the house all day," hesaid. "It was either this or a divorce."

Now 82, Ferson punches a time clock Monday through Friday because he enjoysthe work and the company of his co-workers. Because business is booming again atVita Needle, Ferson often puts in 40 hours a week.

"There is no pressure here," he said. "I can work at my ownpace and take time off when I want."

And because Hartman lets his employees set their own hours, Ferson is oftenin at work by 6:30 a.m. so he can spend the afternoons in his garden.

"What we’ve found works best both for us and our workers is if theyput in four to five hours at a pop," said Hartman, who notes that those wholike to come in early or work late have keys to the shop. "The minimumcommitment we ask for is 15 hours a week. We work around doctors’appointments, babysitting the grandkids, and winter trips to Florida."

Cross-training his workers on a number of the machines in the shop means thatHartman can meet a demanding production schedule even with his workers comingand going as they wish. He pointed out that most who now work at the drillpresses, cutting machines, and grinding wheels never worked with metal beforesetting foot in his factory.

Rose Finnegan, 88, whose specialty is grinding down one end of the hollowtubes to a fine point, waitressed for 30 years before her knees gave out.

At Vita Needle, Finnegan can do her work seated on a stool, and she can getup to walk around whenever she feels like it. And while the work is repetitive,said Marion Archibald, 89, it is tolerable. When she is bored with one process,she can switch to another machine.

Taking regular breaks and chatting with fellow workers are encouraged, saidproduction manager Michael DeRosa, another Vita Needle youngster at age 42. Anefficiency expert, he said, would never approve of the layout of the factoryfloor.

"If we were strictly interested in productivity, there are many betterways of organizing the work flow, but the fact is, if you have a mostly elderlyworkforce, you want to encourage people to get up and walk around. I like to seepeople chatting about their families and other interests in their lives, becausehappy employees are good workers. We have an established reputation forproducing a quality product, so in the end that’s what’s mostimportant."

Nationally, the strong economy is focusing more attention on older workers aslabor-starved companies gravitate to a largely untapped supply of availableworkers, said Sally Dunaway, a senior attorney at the American Association ofRetired Persons. Currently, 12.3 percent of those over 65 are working, up from10.8 percent in 1985, according to figures compiled by AARP.

In March, Congress responded to a rising clamor from businesses as well assenior citizens’ groups to eliminate the earned income limit for people onSocial Security, so that those who want to work aren’t penalized, Dunawaysaid.

Dunaway’s expertise is age discrimination, and until recently, she had beenmost often involved in resolving cases in which older workers lost their jobs tosomeone younger. Today, she is spending more time with companies that areaggressively recruiting retirees in order to woo them back into the workforce.

"Generally speaking, we are very happy to see jobs opening up to olderworkers," Dunaway said. "But we are concerned that some companies aretaking advantage of these workers because they know that elders have feweroptions. Hiring people part-time is one thing if that’s what the workers want,but we don’t like the idea that companies see seniors as a group that doesn’tneed benefits like health insurance or as a group that will put up with erraticwork schedules that younger workers would never tolerate. We don’t wantseniors working in sweatshop conditions."

DeRosa is aware of that criticism and points out that his company pays itsnewest workers better than minimum wage. Currently, the wages at Vita Needlerange from $7.50 to $11 an hour, he said.

"We take into consideration people’s specific skills and give raisesto reward individual effort," DeRosa said.

As far as benefits go, employees including Finnegan and Ferson make it clearthat older workers find their work rewards in different places than those whoare younger.

"Each morning I wake up and thank God I have a place to go," saidFinnegan, the former waitress. "There are no quotas. We each do our work asbest we can and they appreciate us for that."

That’s the kind of comment that makes Hartman proud of his company’scommitment to the employment of older workers. "It has been a terrificbusiness model for us," he said. "We don’t need a quality-controldepartment because these workers really care about what they are doing and wantto do the job right the first time."

Workforce, November2000, Vol. 79, No. 11, pp. 102-103 -- Subscribenow!

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