By JULIE MINDA
For human resources executive Vic Buzachero, the "aha moment" came about a decade ago during an employee focus group at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego. An operating room nurse who was nearing retirement age said she wanted to continue working, but the way the retirement program and Social Security were designed, she would be better off retiring from Scripps Mercy and going to work for its competitor.
"As she talked through that, the bell rang in my head and I said, 'We should not be paying people to leave when these are some of our most seasoned, expert folks and they don't want to quit,'" recalled Buzachero, who is corporate senior vice president of innovation, human resources and performance management for Scripps Health, parent of Scripps Mercy.
At the time the retirement plan was structured as a defined benefit plan and employees couldn't draw benefits unless they retired from Scripps. The nurse's comment triggered an overhaul of Scripps' benefits, so that employees could contribute to a defined contribution plan and draw from their funds while employed. The change removed a disincentive for older workers to stay.
It is part of a larger Scripps effort over the past decade to make it easier for older workers to stay in the workforce. "Patients come to us because of our expertise — we need to hold onto that expertise, and there are a whole host of people today that we're going to want to keep a little longer," Buzachero said. This is particularly true given anticipated worker shortages, he added. Research published in Hospital & Health Networks shows that most working nurses either retire or cut back their hours between ages 53 and 56. The U.S. Government Accountability Office had projected in 2001 that 40 percent of nurses would be age 50 or older by last year.
Scripps Mercy is among Catholic health systems and facilities that have been recognized nationally for tailoring workplace benefits to the needs of older adults, a cohort which AARP defines as those aged 50 and older. Such facilities make it a priority to let employees know that there are options that can enable them to continue working into their senior years. For those who wish to do so, the facility works to understand what it can do to accommodate them. Many traditional workplace benefits, policies and practices make it a challenge for older workers to stay; senior friendly companies ease these challenges.
Bonnie Shelor is senior vice president for human resources at Bon Secours Virginia Health System of Richmond, Va. She said open-mindedness is key. "What I have seen around the country is that many organizations have a very narrow view of what work should look like. When we're willing to broaden our perspective and be flexible, then we win because we can get the best of what people can bring to our organization."
Not necessarily 9-to-5
Providing alternatives to traditional work schedules is a good place to start, according to surveys and other employee research done by senior-friendly systems including Bon Secours; Resurrection Health Care of Chicago; Saint Vincent Health System of Erie, Pa.; Scripps; and TriHealth and its Good Samaritan Hospital of Cincinnati.
Recognizing that older workers, and most particularly those in physically demanding clinical jobs, may not have the stamina to work 40 hours a week, or that they may wish to alter their hours so they can spend time with their families or travel, such systems have allowed for a wide variety of work arrangements, including job sharing, telecommuting, contractual, part-time and per diem work. Many allow for shortened clinical shifts.
Better than part-time
It's usually not enough just to offer accommodating schedules, though. Most traditional benefit packages are for full-time employees only. Organizations must broaden the eligibility of their benefit plans if they wish to meet the needs of people wanting to work fewer hours but needing to receive benefits. Scripps, Bon Secours, Resurrection and TriHealth all offer ways for part-time workers to retain health insurance and other benefits traditionally offered to full-time workers alone. In some cases, health insurance benefits are not as rich for part-timers as for full-time employees. But human resources directors at the systems said older employees value the offering nonetheless.
The traditional, restrictive pension benefit design that caused concerns at Scripps has proved problematic for older workers elsewhere too. Bon Secours and Resurrection have used a similar fix to that of Scripps, adopting defined contribution and defined benefit designs.
Saint Vincent used a different tactic. Its retirees can choose to work 1,000 hours a year without losing benefits from their pension. More than 10 percent of retirees have opted to work.
Saint Vincent, TriHealth, Bon Secours and Scripps also keep lines of communication open with their retirees. Many retirees are interested in what's happening at their former place of employment, and "some retirees see new things taking place, and they want to be a part of it," said Scripps' Buzachero.
"Bon Secours really feels like your family when you work here," added Dawn Trivette, administrative director of work and family services at Bon Secours Virginia. "Most people realized when they separated from that, they were interested in coming back and being able to work on some level."
Many older workers stay in or return to the workforce out of necessity. Buzachero of Scripps said that system has seen increasing numbers of retirees coming back because of the impact of the economic downturn.
When it comes to fielding new opportunities with older employees and retirees, Resurrection finds older employees eager to learn, change and grow. Older workers have been quick to take advantage of scholarships for advanced degrees at Scripps, School at Work training at Bon Secours and similar offerings at TriHealth. Bon Secours has brought in speakers to help older workers think about changing career paths. Speaker Jeri Sedlar shared insights from a book she coauthored, Don't Retire, Rewire.
Saint Vincent nurse Carol Cacchione has transitioned through many roles in her 42-year tenure at the hospital. Now a lactation consultant and bereavement specialist in the hospital's mother and baby unit, Cacchione appreciates having been able to shift her career and develop new programs as needs surfaced. She currently heads the Empty Arms support program for parents whose babies have died.
The 64-year-old Cacchione said she keeps working "because I still feel passionate about the work I do at Saint Vincent."
In-house career shifts are particularly popular with employees in physically strenuous roles such as nursing, noted Francine Barr, chief nursing executive and vice president of patient care services at Bon Secours St. Mary's Hospital in Richmond. Some older clinicians have transitioned to the employee wellness area, for instance, where there is no heavy lifting or similar strains.
For seniors who remain in clinical roles, workplace safety changes in recent years have helped, noted Barr. Hospitals increasingly use assistive devices such as lifts and mats that hover on air to help nurses move heavy patients.
Janice Lindquist, director of human resources for Resurrection's Saint Francis Hospital in Evanston, Ill., said current trends point to longer working lives. "With increased life expectancy and the harsh economic realities we are experiencing as a society, retaining our older employees provides them an opportunity to continue to make a valuable contribution to the community while maintaining financial independence."
She added that employers also reap the benefits of such arrangements. "Older workers typically demonstrate a strong work ethic and sense of loyalty to our organization. They serve as role models and mentors by virtue of their extensive experience ... (Longtime employees) serve as our historians and our ambassadors in the communities we serve.
"Our ability to retain our older employees is a testament to the way we strive to live our core values," Lindquist said.
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