Leavitt: Some people think the best workers are the oldest

By Irv Leavitt for Chronicle Media

Bannockburn Police Chief Ron Price, 63, (right) retires this month two years after he hired full-time Patrol Officer Mike Volling, 59. The department’s officers range in age from 41 to 64. (Photo by Irv Leavitt photo)

We’ve been hearing for decades that the baby boomer generation gets all the breaks because they have money and they vote and they generally call the shots.

That’s all over now.

The generation after the Greatest Generation can’t get a job.

Almost every month for eight years, the United States has been adding over 100,000 jobs, but people over 50 are being left out.

Those jobs aren’t going to the baby boomers. They’re going to their grandbabies.

Instead, older Americans are being laid off, and it happens ironically. They’re vulnerable because their years of experience have made them more valuable, but that value means higher pay. They can’t readily get new jobs at any price, because employers assume they’ll eventually want more money. Three out of four say their age gets in the way of being rehired, according to the AARP.

There are lots of excuses for discrimination against the old. Their health insurance costs more. They’re not as pretty. If they still need to work at their age, what are they, stupid? But the main thing is money.

It’s the modern version of child labor. A hundred years ago, factories employed kids who were paid a substandard wage, because they were kids, and kids don’t deserve adult money, right? So the kids worked, while the parents were turned away, and they all starved.

In those days, the obviously better employees were older, but they sat. Recently, I talked to a fellow named Ron Price who also thinks the obviously better employees are older. And they sit, too — in the front seats of squad cars.

Price is the soon-to-retire police chief of Bannockburn, a very upscale little Chicago suburb where nothing bad ever happens. Until it does.

He never hires anyone with less than five years experience, because he needs all his officers to have seen things they probably won’t see on the job in Bannockburn, so they’ll be ready. He usually hires cops who’ve retired from other departments.

Bannockburn officers’ ages range from 41 to 64.

“They have the experience that comes out of a career in law enforcement,” he said. “We need them to know how to handle whatever comes up. After all, there might be 10 years between homicides, home invasions, here.”

So, older cops are the ones more likely to hit the ground running when something bad actually happens.

Patrol Officer Mike Volling, 59, looks like he would have no trouble literally hitting the ground running. He carries around all that police officer equipment with ease, and his face glows with health.

“I can still chase people,” he said, “though I’m not quite as fast as I was in my 20s.”

He’s twice retired, once from a job as chief in Glencoe and then, in 2017, from the chief’s job in Golf. While in Golf, he worked occasional days patrolling Bannockburn, for the fun of it.

“I still love being a cop,” he said.

When Price realized Volling was burdened with a daily 42-mile commute from his state-line home to Golf, he invited him to come on at Bannockburn full-time.

In Bannockburn, “If a resident has a flooded basement, we help with that. If they’re having a party, we allow them to park cars in our lot. If they have a lost dog, we’re likely to recognize the dog, and take it back to the owner.”

It’s not the kind of police work most cops get into the business for, Volling said. “Younger guys don’t feel happy,” he said. “They want action.”

Fellow Bannockburn Patrol Officer George Roberts, 64, said a police officer unsuited for such work can be a handicap to public safety.

“Boredom produces complacency,” he said. “They get lax.”

Roberts, a former Wauconda police chief, has worked in Bannockburn for 14 years, paying off his kids’ college expenses. He’ll have to retire, by village ordinance, at 65.

In the meantime, his experience seems to be an asset.

“A lot of people don’t realize that frequently, we work alone” in small suburbs, Volling said. “No supervisors. Nobody to ask.”

When bad things are happening fast, you probably need someone like Volling or Roberts who doesn’t have to look for the answers on Google. That was the situation in which Brian Polatsek found himself in early 2018, when his fast-growing industrial laundry company got into the mess of his lifetime.

He had a “junior-level accountant” handling much of the financial end of the business, and that was the start of the trouble, Polatsek said. His Skokie-based company EcoBrite Linen had a capital loan, which was earmarked for certain purposes, and those purposes weren’t getting the money, he said.

And that was just the very bad beginning.

The accountant disappeared. The bank said to call in Dave Brittsan, a 66-year-old former chief financial officer and CEO. He did.

He knew Brittsan, and trusted him. And beyond that, when the bank says “Call in this guy now,” that’s what you do.

“We were in a pretty bad situation,” Polatsek said. “And it was digging itself a bigger hole.”

Brittsan assessed that situation, and found, among other things, that the accountant wasn’t a thief. He had just gotten way over his head, freaked out, and fled.

“The books were in terrible shape,” remembered Brittsan. He immediately formed a battle plan, and prepared to call the stakeholders together.

“In a situation in which a company still has their pants and hair on fire, and still needs an injection of funds, the bank and investors recognize that they need each other, so everything won’t fail.

“They’re all in the same boat: ‘Well, this sucks. So how much more capital do we need?’”

Polatsek talks about Brittsan as if he has a cape and a red “S” on his chest.

“The first day, he was already working through a plan of action. He had it in his tool bag.

“Within two weeks, he had a rough idea of where we were, and four weeks after that, he got it under control.”

A year later, Ecobrite Linen is taking over the business of struggling competitors.

Brittsan works for a firm called CFO Simplified, which supplies veteran CFOs to companies when they need them, usually one or two days a week, company owner Lawrence Chester said. His CFOs’ ages range from 48 to 68.

An older, experienced hand is welcome, Polatsek said.

“They have the ability to cut to the chase, figure out what’s important and what’s not. The wheat from the chaff.”

And yet, “None of the people I have hired have decided to leave (previous situations) on their own,” Chester said.

“They’ve all been unemployed when they came to work for me.”

One reason older people are discriminated against is that in 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court made proving age discrimination much harder than proving discrimination for race, gender, religion, or national origin.

If you get screwed because you’re older, you have to prove more than that discrimination took place. You have to prove it was because of your age, and nothing else was a factor. Good luck. Lawyers won’t even take the cases.

A bipartisan cadre of U.S. Senators sponsored the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act to solve the problem. A hearing was held last month. The bill has been stalled for two years.

Progress in this area is slow. McDonald’s discovered in a 2009 United Kingdom study that if they assign even one employee over the age of 60 to the front of a restaurant, customer satisfaction goes up by 20 percent.

The reason, it was reported, is that the good habits of the older employees rubbed off on the younger ones.

Interestingly, it didn’t work if the older person was only 45. The assumption was that the kids respect people who are their grandparents’ age. Their parents’ age, not so much.

In 2019, a decade later, McDonald’s announced the intention to hire more older employees, even though they expect them to cost a little more.

They didn’t need them until now.