Donna Festa is a fifty-four-year-old
white woman. The corporation that owned her plant shut it down. Bam,
just like that. She’d worked there for twenty-two years. Before
that, she’d been with the same company since graduating from high
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 eighties, but was probably in her
sixties, a gaunt woman whose white skin practically blended with her
white hair. She supervised two of us, both seventeen 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
thirties by then, she in her sixties, 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
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
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 fifty-five,
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 a fictional figure
drawn from a number of people in similar circumstances.
[Editor's Note: Lee Lynch is the author
of over 13 books. Her latest, Rainbow Gap, is available at
Strokes Books. You can reach Lynch at LeeLynch@ontopmag.com]
Copyright 2019 Lee Lynch.