HR leaders talk about older workers

Changing demographics and laws make older workers vital to organizations' success

Mary-Alice Vuicic
Vice-president of people Wal-Mart Canada

The retail giant’s Canadian headquarters are located in Mississauga, Ont. It’s Canada’s fifth largest employers, with 70,000 employees across the country.

Working past the age of 65 is something Wal-Mart has always encouraged and why the retail giant has never had a mandatory retirement age, says Mary-Alice Vuicic, vice-president of people for Wal-Mart Canada. In fact, the company’s oldest employee is a 93-year-old greeter, she says.

About 20 per cent of the company’s workforce are over the age of 50, says Vuicic. Some of these people are retired professionals, such as a dentist in Ottawa who now works as a store greeter, who want to keep working to supplement their incomes and forge social ties, she says.

Without any targeted recruitment strategies, the retail giant has been able to convert its customers into employees.

“People have made Wal-Mart their employer of choice after retirement,” says Vuicic. “We create a culture that respects and values older workers.”

Wal-Mart also recognizes the value experienced employees offer, so the company has an alumni program that encourages retired Wal-Mart employees to keep working through flexible work arrangements, new roles that give them more flexibility or mentoring employees. A district manager wanted to reduce his responsibilities but still wanted to work full time, so he’s now mentoring other employees on a full-time basis.

“People are welcome to continue working as long as they want,” says Vuicic. “We work very much on being flexible and meeting the individual needs of the (employees).”

She credits that mentality as one of the reasons older workers are the company’s most engaged employees, according to both internal and external employee surveys, including Hewitt Associates’ 50 Best Employers in Canada.

Perhaps another reason Wal-Mart is ranked as a top employer is that it has benefits for all employees — including a profit sharing program, an employee discount and a stock purchase program — as well as benefits for full-time employees, including health, dental and life insurance.

“Almost 50 per cent of our workforce is full time and has benefits. That’s highly unusual in retail and, again, a lot of our older workers value that,” says Vuicic.

With many insurance companies either charging higher premiums to provide health coverage to workers over 65 or refusing to cover them at all, Wal-Mart is looking at other ways to provide health benefits to older workers. One option is health-care spending accounts, which give employees a certain amount of money to spend on any health-care services they want.

The company is also considering several new programs for all employees, but which will particularly appeal to older workers. These include job sharing and sabbaticals so employees who want to take six months off work to go down south in the winter will have a guaranteed job when they return.

One program that is still very much in the idea stage is the prospect of a job exchange, where Canadian snowbirds can work at a Wal-Mart store in the United States while they’re wintering there and U.S. workers could do the same in Canada.

With a large proportion of its employee base over the age of 50, Wal-Mart has begun to modify various aspects of the work environment to better suit these employees.

Corporate communications, both hard copy and electronic, are available in larger print so they’re easier to read and a new employee website will have educational material on working with colleagues of different ages and tips on aging well, says Vuicic.

“We’re also looking at the physical work environment,” she says. “Older workers may need longer rest periods or they may need warmer coats if they’re working at the front door.”

One change, which came to management’s attention through employee feedback, includes providing thick, anti-fatigue mats for employees who have to stand for long periods of time. Stores across the country are already starting to implement the change.

“We have no fears about the aging workforce because we think that we’re doing very well,” says Vuicic.

Christina Sass-Kortsak
Assistant vice-president of human resources University of Toronto

The university has 11,807 employees and 70,143 students at its three campuses in Toronto, Scarborough and Mississauga.

The University of Toronto was ahead of the curve and eliminated mandatory retirement for faculty in 2005, nearly two years before Ontario’s ban came into effect.

“We didn’t want to be losing highly skilled, knowledgeable faculty members when they were still contributing in many important ways,” says Christina Sass-Kortsak, the assistant vice-president of human resources at the university. “It also became a recruitment issue for us. We were recruiting people from all over the world and if you’re recruiting academics at the more senior level, it is of interest to them to know they wouldn’t be forced to retire at 65.”

The university seems to encourage workers to settle in and stay awhile. Last year, 150 people retired from the university and more than one-half of them had worked there for at least 30 years.

“We tend to be a place that people want to stay and one of the reasons we think that’s the case is that we have a really strong commitment to career development and education and there’s a culture of valuing knowledge and experience,” says Sass-Kortsak. “We have a lot of opportunity for flexible hours, flexible work arrangements and working from home where it’s appropriate.”

With no mandatory retirement and with the changing demographics of the workforce — the average age of the university’s 11,807 employees is 45 — the university realized its program encouraging retirement at age 55 didn’t make sense anymore. Instead, it now offers a three-year phased retirement program for faculty. The program allows faculty to reduce their work hours but their pension accrual is still based on full-time hours.

“There’s a three-year period where they can be phasing out and thinking about how they can hand over their knowledge and expertise to the people behind them,” says Sass-Kortsak. It also makes it easier for the university to do its succession and staffing planning.

While many other organizations are struggling to figure out how to continue to provide benefits to older workers when many insurance providers refuse to cover them, the university is once again well ahead of the pack. Since the university already offered a comprehensive benefits package for retirees, there has been no problem continuing benefits for faculty, and now the rest of staff, who are over 65.

The older workers get exactly the same health and dental benefits they had before the age of 65; however, there will be no long-term disability coverage after 65.

Even with a comprehensive benefits package for all employees, the university is still looking for ways to ensure the benefits meet the needs of different employees.

“What we are trying to do is tailor the benefits more closely to the needs of a variety of groups, as many other employers are doing. It’s in some ways challenging for us because we have over 20 different bargaining units, so there’s a lot of negotiation to change benefit programs. But we have a general strategy to move towards more tailored benefit programs,” says Sass-Kortsak.

One way of doing this is by offering health spending accounts, an option Sass-Kortsak thinks an aging workforce will appreciate.

One benefit already in place that she sees as being important to an aging workforce is the elder-care support provided through the university’s employee assistance program (EAP). Many older workers have aging parents who need care and the support provided through the EAP can alleviate a lot of the employee’s stress, she says.

This kind of benefit, one that’s available to the entire population regardless of age, is an example of how the university plans to address the aging workforce.

“Rather than focusing specifically on what does our aging workforce need, we tend to think of it more holistically as what do all our employees need if we’re going to support as diverse a workforce as possible from a cultural point of view, a physical point of view and an age point of view,” she says.

There is strong support for employees who want to continue their career development and education, at all stages of their career, and the existing accommodation service will help older workers as their physical abilities change, says Sass-Kortsak.

“If there is a health issue that’s affecting their ability to perform their job and we can reasonably accommodate that, then that’s what we do,” she says.

Brian Magnusson
Director of human resources North Eastman Health Association

Headquartered in Pinawa, Man., the regional health authority employs 1,000 people at seven facilities in six communities in eastern Manitoba.

With the average nurse and health-care aide at North Eastman Health Association in her mid-40s, the regional health authority has to prepare for a significant number of people retiring in the next five to 10 years.

“Based on our critical skill resources, in the next five years, we have somewhere in the order of 20 to 25 per cent of our workforce eligible for retirement,” says Brian Magnusson. That’s why the health authority is starting to look at different ways to make the organization a place where front-line workers want to stay.

In the last five years, the health authority has been measuring staff satisfaction as part of its bid to become an employer of choice. Part of that effort is building a culture of learning, manifested in opportunities for management training or front-line nursing training, says Magnusson. The health authority has just finished putting together a virtual library “where all the resources that are shareable are listed in a database listing what an item is and what information it covers.”

One of the main areas of focus now for the health authority is health and well-being, says Magnusson. Part of this education campaign is to remind staff of safe work practices and policies such as lifting techniques, the proper use of equipment, as well as “why those policies exist, which is obviously for both the patients’ and employees’ safety.”

The other part of the campaign is raising awareness among staff about personal health and wellness.

“A lot of that’s focused on education, smoking cessation, healthy eating, diet, reading labels,” says Magnusson. “Healthier staff will obviously be healthier, happier and less prone to injuries and accidents.”

They’ll also likely be more able to continue in their physically demanding work as they reach later stages in their career.

“I’ve talked to many staff who have retired over the last few years who are basically just tired out,” he says. “They are not interested in continuing. That’s one of the reasons why we’re looking at health and fitness and wellness issues.”

To prepare for nurses and health-care aides retiring, the North Eastman Health Association is also putting more emphasis on its mentoring program where a new nurse is paired with a seasoned one.

“They’re buddied on the same shift and work together. They’re paired with the same person all the time so they get consistency and can ask questions at a greater level of comfort and familiarity,” says Magnusson.

While the health authority doesn’t have the staffing resources to be able to take work off of a nurse’s plate for being a mentor, Magnusson says the experience “increases (a mentor nurse’s) job satisfaction in terms of being able to pass along experience and wisdom and counsel” to the next generation.

There are now only seven mentors for each classification (including licensed practical nurse, registered nurse, health-care aid, housekeeping and dietary staff), but as more recruits come through the door, the need for mentors will grow.

Apart from these initiatives on health and wellness and mentoring, Magnusson says the health authority is constrained when it comes to modifying work conditions as a way to entice retiring people to stay. For example, the collective agreement, which is bargained provincially, allows for nurses with the highest seniority to reduce their hours. But while Magnusson says the health authority would like to enhance this option by maintaining full-time benefits for these workers, that’s something employers can’t implement on their own — it has to be bargained.

Terry Daly
Director of human resource services Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto

As one of Canada’s largest child protection agencies, the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto has nearly 600 employees in offices throughout the city.

Twenty years ago, the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto was facing a crisis. Employee turnover was at 25 per cent.

The nature of the job, protecting children from abuse, causes high levels of stress — a recent University of Toronto study on vicarious trauma found child protection workers are at a higher risk for post-traumatic stress disorder than police, firefighters and ambulance workers, says Terry Daly, director of human resource services for the agency.

“That’s usually a shock to people. The difference is we have a high intensity that never stops. It’s a very tough area to have high retention,” she says.

Child protection workers see grim situations every day where children are being physically, emotionally or sexually abused. Many workers become the victims of violence as well.

When Daly first joined the agency in the mid-1980s, too many workers were burning out and that meant a lot of institutional knowledge was being lost, says Daly.

“The stress of the job can often leave inexperienced staff feeling overwhelmed. Retention of older, experienced staff has been essential to us to provide continuity, stability and wisdom in a very stressful environment,” she says.

Older workers are able to share their experiences with newer staff, open doors for them that might otherwise remain closed and teach them how to manage the stress of constantly dealing with life and death issues, she adds.

The turnover rate has dropped to 3.9 per cent, and more than one quarter of the workforce is 50 or older. In fact CARP, Canada’s Association for the 50-Plus, has recognized the agency as being one of Canada’s best employers for people over the age of 50 two years in a row.

While Daly is pleased with the CARP award, the agency has never specifically focused on what was best for older workers. Instead, it concentrated on what was best for the entire workforce.

In 2000, when the turnover rate was at 9.5 per cent, Daly and the agency aggressively focused on how to stop what she calls the “revolving door” of employees. Through surveys, most employees said they would stay long term if they were able to continue to learn, be challenged and make a difference while having the time to relax and take care of themselves and their families.

The agency instituted several programs to help employees do this. One program is a voluntary two-week flex plan. Staff can work extended hours to earn one paid day for every 10 days of extended hours.

While workers of all ages take part in the program, it has been of special interest to older workers who are moving toward retirement, says Daly.

“They start to build in having an extra day that’s their own time,” she says.

Other programs include flexible start and end hours, job sharing and a salary deferment program. Again, the programs are open to everyone, but for older workers, job sharing and the salary deferment program, where an employee works for four years at four-fifths of her salary and then has a year off, are ways employees can begin to transition to retirement, says Daly.

And to help workers with that transition, the agency offers transition planning for employees 50 and older. The sessions are about more than just the financial aspects of retirement and focus on helping workers figure out their vision for what they want in retirement, says Daly.

The end of mandatory retirement in Ontario has made the agency look at the issue of benefits for workers over 65. Because the issue is being addressed in collective bargaining, Daly can’t comment on the details. But she says the agency already provides benefits to retirees and doesn’t have a history of discriminating against workers.

The agency has already been proactive on the benefits front. While most organizations have watched drug costs soar over the past few years, something insurers say will get worse as the workforce ages, the increase hasn’t been as drastic at the Catholic Children’s Aid Society.

It has managed to control costs by focusing more benefit coverage on preventative services, such as massage, acupuncture, naturopathy, nutrition planning and chiropractic, says Daly.

But if employees fall very ill, the benefit plan also ensures they don’t suffer financially. A component of the plan, called cataclysmic drug coverage, kicks in after an employee has incurred $5,000 in eligible drug expenses and then the plan will cover 100 per cent of drug costs instead of 80 per cent.

“We have a documented wellness philosophy. We say we’re committed to a direction that enhances the spiritual, emotional, physical and environmental well-being of staff, both individually and as a collective. We’re really trying to make sure that staff take care of themselves,” she says.

Don Chiro
Director of human resources Casey House

The HIV/AIDS hospice in Toronto has 60 employees, including 30 full- and part-time nurses, providing palliative care to HIV/AIDS patients.

The changing labour market means employers will have to set themselves apart from the rest if they want to attract the best and the brightest. And it isn’t always compensation that wins the day, says Don Chiro, director of human resources at Toronto-based hospice Casey House.

Organizations need to position themselves as employers that value and support older workers, and this is something Casey House, with nurses making up one-half of its 60 employees, has tried to do.

In 2005 and 2006, the hospital took part in the Ontario government’s Nurse Mentorship Program that provided funding for older workers to take one day a week off from active nursing to focus on professional development.

“It allowed us for that one day to add extra hours for a new recruit, a younger nurse,” says Chiro. “Then as our staff retire, we have a pool of ready talent.”

So not only was the older nurse broadening her experience and lightening her load, a younger nurse was given the chance to gain more experience, which allowed Casey House to appeal to both demographics, says Chiro.

Even before the government program, Casey House offered flexible work arrangements and has allowed employees to scale back their hours. There are also regular reviews of nurses’ case loads to make sure any one nurse isn’t carrying too heavy a load.

These measures seem to appeal to the older workers, says Chiro.

“We’ve had those who’ve wanted stay on, so we haven’t had a retention problem.”

Another way Casey House has tried to meet the needs of older workers is by increasing the number of lifting devices and wheelchairs, which relieves some of the physical burden of a nurse’s job. The hospital has also replaced all the patient beds so patients can adjust them on their own, which reduces the amount of bending and stooping a nurse has to do throughout the day.

With an aging workforce and many jurisdictions banning mandatory retirement, benefits for older workers will be a major issue for employers over the next decade.

“The benefits issue is the trickiest one,” says Chiro. “When the Ontario government ended mandatory retirement, it didn’t address the benefits issue.”

Instead, it’s been left to employers to try and get insurance companies, which aren’t legally required to provide benefits to workers 65 and older, to do so at an affordable cost. The employers that can sort out the benefits issue for workers 65 and older are the ones that will really stand out as employers of choice, says Chiro.

At this time, Chiro doesn’t have the answer, but says Casey House’s executive team is examining the issue and trying to figure out how to extend benefits to workers over 65.

However, Casey House has various other benefits available to all employees, regardless of age.

The hospital offers a block of paid personal days (four in 2006 and six in 2007), above and beyond vacation and sick days, which employees can use at their own discretion.

The hospital found out how much employees value these days after they were removed during collective bargaining five years ago.

“We restored them, not because of collective bargaining, but because of a business need to differentiate ourselves from everybody else,” says Chiro. “I think we’re one of the only hospitals in Ontario that has those.”

There’s also the Care for the Caregiver program that provides in-house massage, relaxation therapy and yoga classes to help employees maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Casey House also values personal and professional development and encourages employee participation in the planning stages. Most of the courses the hospital provides are chosen by staff, says Chiro.

“Generally it’s the older nurses that make suggestions for what kind of professional development is needed,” he says. And following through on their suggestions is a good retention tool, he adds.

“To the extent that we’re able to respond to their needs, we’re able to keep them.”

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