Vita Needle Finds Vital Employees Among the Elderly

Vita Needle Finds Vital Employees Among the Elderly

Caroline Louise Cole

As a group, the senior citizens at Vita Needle Co. are still working to take home 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 others just 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 that meets the modern-day needs of a small manufacturing concern in a competitive market.

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 syringe needles are well into their 80s.

These days, the average age at Vita Needle hovers around 76, but given the company’s reputation for providing “work for life,” that number edges up with each passing year, according to company president Frederick Hartman.

“We haven’t had anyone hit 100 yet, but we’re hoping for that; it would be just fine,” said Hartman, one of the handful of company youngsters at age 48. “It’s not that we won’t hire someone younger. But when younger 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 after attending a business-management class or in response to an overactive sense of civic responsibility. Rather it happened by accident.

“We didn’t plan it this way, but we continue to hire senior citizens because it makes good business sense; we’re not a charity,” he said emphatically. “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 late 1980s, Hartman recalled.

“When we first started hiring older workers, I was actually out looking for people willing to work part time,” he said. “It just so happened the first ones who applied were people who had had other careers. Partly it had do to the economy in Massachusetts at the time. We were in a recession and many companies were laying off their more senior workers.”

Hartman is the fourth generation at the family-owned company, founded in 1932 during the Great Depression through the Yankee ingenuity and foresight of his great-grandfather and great-uncle. For the next 50 years, the business flourished. The country’s fight against polio and smallpox in the 1950s and 1960s spurred demand for hundreds of thousands of needle-tipped syringes to deliver precious immunizations.

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

“Our core business was reusable needles, and with AIDS, suddenly people weren’t so interested in our product any more,” Hartman said.

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

“We were at the point of either closing down or finding other product lines,” Hartman said.

Hartman, who had graduated from Princeton in 1974 with a degree in civil engineering, struck a deal with his father and his uncle and came aboard as president.

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

Today, Vita Needle’s customers range from sporting goods stores and golf pro shops, which use the needles to inflate basketballs and apply the adhesive on golf club handgrips, to funeral homes, which order them for their embalming suites. The needles also are used in the manufacture of cars and in chemistry labs. Sea World regularly orders a hefty 48-inch long needle for injecting killer whales.

But 10 years ago, Hartman knew he was going to need some time to refocus the family business, and that meant finding employees who were willing to add and subtract 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 was his wife’s idea that he get a job, he said.

“She was tired of having me hanging around the house all day,” he said. “It was either this or a divorce.”

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

“There is no pressure here,” he said. “I can work at my own pace and take time off when I want.”

And because Hartman lets his employees set their own hours, Ferson is often in 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 they put in four to five hours at a pop,” said Hartman, who notes that those who like to come in early or work late have keys to the shop. “The minimum commitment 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 that Hartman can meet a demanding production schedule even with his workers coming and going as they wish. He pointed out that most who now work at the drill presses, cutting machines, and grinding wheels never worked with metal before setting foot in his factory.

Rose Finnegan, 88, whose specialty is grinding down one end of the hollow tubes 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 get up 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, said production manager Michael DeRosa, another Vita Needle youngster at age 42. An efficiency expert, he said, would never approve of the layout of the factory floor.

“If we were strictly interested in productivity, there are many better ways of organizing the work flow, but the fact is, if you have a mostly elderly workforce, you want to encourage people to get up and walk around. I like to see people chatting about their families and other interests in their lives, because happy employees are good workers. We have an established reputation for producing a quality product, so in the end that’s what’s most important.”

Nationally, the strong economy is focusing more attention on older workers as labor-starved companies gravitate to a largely untapped supply of available workers, said Sally Dunaway, a senior attorney at the American Association of Retired Persons. Currently, 12.3 percent of those over 65 are working, up from 10.8 percent in 1985, according to figures compiled by AARP.

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

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

“Generally speaking, we are very happy to see jobs opening up to older workers,” Dunaway said. “But we are concerned that some companies are taking advantage of these workers because they know that elders have fewer options. 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’t need benefits like health insurance or as a group that will put up with erratic work schedules that younger workers would never tolerate. We don’t want seniors working in sweatshop conditions.”

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

“We take into consideration people’s specific skills and give raises to reward individual effort,” DeRosa said.

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

“Each morning I wake up and thank God I have a place to go,” said Finnegan, the former waitress. “There are no quotas. We each do our work as best we can and they appreciate us for that.”

That’s the kind of comment that makes Hartman proud of his company’s commitment to the employment of older workers. “It has been a terrific business model for us,” he said. “We don’t need a quality-control department because these workers really care about what they are doing and want to do the job right the first time.”

Caroline Louise Cole is a freelance writer based in the Boston area.

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