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  WINDY CITY TIMES

THE AMAZON TRAIL Wasted years
by Lee Lynch
2019-02-27

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Donna Festa is a 54-year-old white woman. The corporation that owned her plant shut it down. Bam, just like that. She'd worked there for 22 years. Before that, she'd been with the same company since graduating from high school.

The day it happened, six months ago, Donna* stood outside the grimy red brick building in shock. It would have been one thing if they'd fired her. They couldn't; she was good at her job and almost any job they threw at her. She had to be. Once Donna turned fifty the big bosses moved her around the factory floor like a piece of worn furniture until she was nothing but splinters. They swept her out to the street with the push broom she'd so often used.

The splintering only began there.

Of all the inequities that exist in the United States, age discrimination is one of the least acknowledged. How many of us, when we first entered the workforce, were intolerant of co-workers with white or even gray hair.

At my first job I was a file clerk. Mrs. Pelkey, in my eyes, was in her 80s, but was probably in her 60s—a gaunt woman whose white skin practically blended with her white hair. She supervised two of us, both 17 years old. Francisca and I were, if not what my Nana would call holy terrors, then one file card short of it. Quietly, except for the giggles, we made fun of Mrs. Pelkey. She was our cruel entertainment as we sat at our table eight hours a day, facing frowny old Mrs. Pelkey, itching, for my part, to get downtown where the gay kids were.

With exceptions, old people in the workplace were joke fodder, disrespected, resented. And so we are today. It feels different on this end.

Marion was a petite, white-haired, African-American woman with perceptive, kindly eyes. I was in my 30s by then, she in her 60s, at least. Our jobs were burnout-stressful. I asked her once why she hadn't retired and she just laughed. Marion was sprightly, knew the most obscure of regulations, stayed attuned to everything around her at all times, and could solve any problem, no sweat. Her staff might bitch about her vigilance, but no one made fun of that woman.

For me, lesson learned. Elders could be like Marion: competent, respected and appreciated.

When Donna Festa fitted all the splinters of herself back into place the best she could, she bought some dye and covered up her hard-earned gray hairs. The Employment office swarmed with new layoffs. Her first unemployment check was about the amount of her rent. Her girlfriend of many years lived separately, bringing up three granddaughters.

Donna was highly motivated to find a job and confident her work record and skills would make for a quick hire. The economy, she read, was on the upswing. She went to the job seeker training, completed her first-ever resume, and attended every interview offered.

Meanwhile, she talked to everyone she knew, learned the Employment office computers, and introduced herself at every, mill, warehouse, and manufacturer in the area—then out of the area, although the cost of gas was going to be a problem.

Six months later, her unemployment ended. She felt herself splintering again. What was she doing wrong? Was it her resume? Because she was gay? Were immigrants taking all the jobs? Didn't companies want skilled and experienced applicants anymore?

She asked at the employment office if it was because she was over fifty. The worker told her, "The Age Discrimination in Employment Act forbids age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older." She laughed in his face. "Who's enforcing that?" she said. "Do you think I'm a damn fool?" She was considered uncooperative and advised nothing more could be done for her.

There was a McDonald's near the Employment office. A few of her former workmates, all close to her age, would grab a dollar coffee, then sit around for an hour and talk about what they saw on the news, who they heard got hired on where. All the hires were younger people.

They were scared. Baby boomers had had it all. Now employers were avoiding them. Avoiding their predictable medical costs. Suspicious anyone even close to fifty wouldn't pull her weight on the job. They told one another they felt like ghosts. They all had a friend who traded in a stick house for a motorhome and followed seasonal work around the country. This wasn't the middle and old age they'd envisioned. None of them wanted to work in the relentlessly demanding Amazons of the world where they'd be fighting robots for their jobs.

Walmart offered Donna, now 55, a cleaning job. What the hell, she thought. Push-brooms had become her specialty. She took it until something better came along…

*Donna Festa is fictional figure drawn from a number of people in similar circumstances.

Copyright Lee Lynch 2019


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