Monday, August 13, 2001

Bonne Bell finds force with older labor


Cosmetics company only hires age 55 and older

By Carrie Spencer
The Associated Press

        LAKEWOOD, Ohio — The assembly line workers remove tubes of Berry Happy and Candy Confetti Surprise lip gloss from factory boxes and repackage them for customers generations younger than they are.

        A few feet away, several workers chatting about their grandchildren pack shampoo, bath gel and more lip gloss into clear aqua zipper pouches to complete the Cosmic Sleepover Sack.

        For the last four years, the Bonne Bell cosmetics company in suburban Cleveland has hired only workers aged 55 and older for part-time jobs on its packaging lines. Eighty-seven in all, ages 58 to 90.

        They earn up to $8 an hour and fill two shifts, 8 a.m. to noon and noon to 4 p.m. weekdays, working in a former warehouse behind the corporate office.

        Seventy-year-old Mildred Radlich previously worked as a bank bookkeeper and church secretary. “This is more laid back,” she said. “The other places, it was rush, rush, rush.”

        Supervisor Juliana Carlton, 65, said the light work goes fast.

        “We don't get bored,” she said. “You're talking with people your own age about the same aches and pains, the same problems.”

        The way Vice Chairman Jess Bell Sr. sees it, the company simply tapped into “a tremendous labor source for a certain type of work.”

        “Their work ethic is second-to-none,” said Mr. Bell, who founded the program.

        Bonne Bell's sole use of seniors for its packaging operations sets it apart from other companies dipping into a growing pool of retirees who need to stay active, said Monika Hill, spokeswoman for Arlington, Va.,-based Green Thumb, which offers training and employment services for older workers.

        Most businesses do not rely solely on older workers for a particular operation, instead integrating seniors into their staffs, she said.

        Bonne Bell has company as it looks to seniors as a reliable work force.

        Most of the 35 workers at Vita Needle Co. in Needham, Mass., are age 70 or older. President Frederick Hartman recently sent a congratulatory card to Mr. Bell after learning of the cosmetic company's program.

        “People are starting to hire senior citizens — banks and groceries — but it's not a massive percentage,” Mr. Hartman said. “I would certainly be a proponent of the value of older workers. It's just a highly successful business plan.”

        Sara Rix, a senior policy adviser on labor for AARP, said there are social and health benefits to remaining employed. But she worries the segregation at Bonne Bell might send an unintended message that older workers cannot keep up with younger colleagues.

        “Younger workers can benefit greatly from interacting with older workers,” Ms. Rix said.

        A growing number of older Americans are staying employed. Nearly one-third of those older than 55 were employed in 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2015, that number is expected to increase to 38 percent.

        At the family-owned Bonne Bell company, Mr. Bell was chairman from 1960-99 and at age 76 has no plans to retire soon. The company, which reports annual sales at more than $100 million, is named for his sister, who is 77 and retired a few years ago.

        In the mid-1990s, facing a shortage of workers, the company appealed to its retirees to return to work at its main operation in nearby Westlake. As the group chatted, Mr. Bell and his wife, Juliana, decided other retirees might enjoy the opportunity to do light work.

        Through word-of-mouth and some fliers in senior centers, the company attracted 16 retirees to start the older worker program, which later moved to the Lakewood building, where it grew.

        Today, there is a waiting list of applicants.

        “Very few people have left us,” Ms. Carlton said. “A couple have passed on.”

        During a recent shift, pallets of boxes streaked with bright pink crowded the factory floor. Each four-hour shift fills and seals up to 14,000 cardboard and plastic packages of Lip Smackers or Lip Lix gloss. There's not much lifting or twisting. Machines seal filled boxes with packing tape.

        Workers rotate as needed between the laminating machines and the conveyor, where they pack products in different combinations. Ms. Carlton checks the day's schedule and slows the conveyor down when she's short-handed, which happens often.

        “If they need people for any of the other lines, they come to my line and take my people,” she said.

        Sixty-six-year-old Judy Thomas quit her retail job when she heard about the factory. “Have you ever worked retail?” she asks. “It's fairly peaceful here.”

        Her co-workers include former homemakers and Lakewood's retired litter control officer, 78-year-old Ralph DePolo.

        “My good wife passed away Aug. 18 of last year,” said Mr. DePolo, who began working at Bonne Bell in October. “I had to do something.”

        Workers have monthly birthday parties and can use the company-owned fitness center.

        They can order $50 worth of free merchandise every three months. That's when grandchildren and neighbors clamor for such must-haves as Marshmallow Yum Cake Smackers or Lucky-scented Bottled Emotion cologne.

        “My granddaughters fight over who's going to get it next,” said 71-year-old Frances Stetz, who has 18 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. “I'm the coolest person in town.”

       



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