The Amazon Trail: Wasted Years by Lee Lynch

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 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 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 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 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 fictional figure drawn from a number of people in similar circumstances.

Copyright Lee Lynch 2019

2/19

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6 comments

  1. I didn’t notice that I was getting older. In my profession, most often, older = wiser and that it what people want in a therapist. But, men started giving me their seats on the Disney transportation bus. I was a little stunned, then internally mad, then said thank you, over and over each time the guys stood up. Having such a strong response to a bus seat (the guys thought I was old enough to merit sitting down) makes me wonder how I’d respond to the situations you’ve written about. Lee, thanks for shining a light on age discrimination. I am now more aware and will take efforts to call out age discrimination when I see it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Whenever I see the young’uns behaving badly I have three thoughts … 1 – I wasn’t ever that bad, oh Goddess, please tell me I was never that bad … 2 – just you wait, you brat … and 3 – (more of an action) I do whatever is appropriate to connect with the object of their scorn and tell her, (usually is’t a woman – double jeopardy yet again) she’s not alone.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your insight into the world of age descrimination is spot on. The application and hiring practices today are robotic and highly impersonal, leaving out the basic face-to-face interaction. Most employers are missing out on the opportunity to hire the over 50 age employees who could provide the much needed experience, dedication, and insight that would contribute to their companies success.

    Like

  4. Age discrimination is freakin’ real. I work my freaking ass off at my current job but I know I could be thrown out on said ass whenever they feel like it and I would be up shit creek because I’m now “a woman of a certain age.”

    I’ve heard it called the “hidden discrimination” because nobody has to justify throwing the olds out. They’ll make up any damn excuse they can to get around it. “Wasn’t performing up to our standards.” “We had to shut down that branch.” “Bad attitude.” Even if none of that shit is true, they’ll shove older people into those boxes and toss ’em out, losing tons of institutional knowledge and competence.

    I’m stressing out just thinking about it.

    Like

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