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Vita Needle factory embraces age-friendly policies

Roger Huff, William Ferson, and Robert O'Mara Rosa Finnegan relax at Vita Needle company primarily composed of senior citizens.

Coworkers chat during a morning break at the Vita Needle factory, where age is considered an asset. — Photo by: Sandy Hooper/Aurora Select

The Vita appeal

With bare floors and rows of workers sitting on high, well-worn chairs over long wooden tables, there's nothing cushy about the place. A bell alerts the mostly $11-to-$12-an-hour employees to their two 15-minute breaks and when they can eat lunch. Part-time workers don't receive insurance or other benefits. So what's the draw?

A paycheck is paramount for many, while it's handy supplemental income for others. But even with minimum wage or slightly better rates, most stay for years because the job gives them a sense of purpose and belonging at a time that can otherwise be profoundly isolating. Robert Carr, 67, an eight-year Vita employee and former Postal Service carrier and supervisor, says his previous job as a security officer at a college was "solitary and I was lonely. People here are gregarious. You do your work and have some fun."

Soon after retiring from his 39-year job at a gauge company, William Ferson, now 92, decided he'd work for just a few months at Vita. That was 23 years ago. Back then, he was bored hanging around the house, and his wife, used to having her own space, was thrilled when he answered an ad in the local paper. Now a widower, he works 28 hours, down from 35, and plans to stay "as long as I can."

The job helps him pay for medications and other bills, but more important, "I'm with people my own age," Ferson says. "My mind is active. I get up in the morning and have someplace to go and talk to my friends. It's good therapy. My doctors have said, 'Don't stop working! It's good for you.' And they're right!"

If Ferson or the others become ill and have to take off time, they don't worry about losing their jobs. In its 79-year history, Vita has never laid off a worker or forced any to retire. When employees need time off, Vita hires temporary or summer help, who are often grandchildren or friends of current employees. "We believe part of the healing process is knowing they have someplace to go. We want them to know that their job is still here," says LaRosa. Of course, they don't always come back. "I dread those phone calls from a family member saying that an employee just can't make it anymore." He attends two to three workers' funerals a year. "I worked at other places where people didn't die. Here it's a given."

Next: Young employees mix well with older workers. >>

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