Age discrimination campaigners are celebrating a major victory; the law now prevents employers from forcing their workers into retirement just because they’ve hit 65.
It’s part of the government’s grand plan to make our old age a more productive and independent one as we live longer, healthier lives.
But for 200 employees of one of Sheffield’s most caring organisations, the law came too late. They were forced to retire from Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust just before the new law went into force on October 1.
Many had dedicated their lives to the city’s hospitals and feel their loyalty and professionalism has been thrown back in their faces by an ageist and underhand employer who has seized its last chance to throw them on the scrap-heap.
A husband and wife both forced to retire within weeks of each other tell their story to Women’s Editor Jo Davison.
Doreen and Eddie Lewis are that new breed of super-pensioner.
They look a decade younger than their 65 years. They’re fit; their minds are as quick as they ever were and until just a few weeks ago, their lives were crammed from morn til night.
Age? It was just a number. They had never felt old.
But now they do.
“On the scrap-heap. Useless, past it and binned,” that’s how they’ve made us feel,” says Eddie Lewis so angrily his wife’s Yorkshire terriers look up in surprise.
Eddie is a mild-manned man. A gentle man who had chosen a hospital career after years in industry.
But he and Doreen feel hurt and betrayed. Until just a few weeks ago, their lives had revolved around the careers they were utterly dedicated to – caring for patients at Sheffield Northern General Hospital.
Doreen was a nurse on the night shift at the spinal injuries re-admission ward. For 21 years, she’d adored her job.
Eddie, a support worker in the Outpatients’ Department, loved his. He’d swapped crane driving for hospital work 16 years ago and had never looked back. He had become such an integral and obliging member of staff, he was even used on a hospital poster campaign.
But in March, just as they were planning how to celebrate their landmark birthdays just two days apart in April, letters came that made them totally reassess what being 65 still meant in this day and age.
To their employers, at least.
Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust was forcing them into retirement, just before a change in the law abolishing the default retirement age of 65 would make that impossible.
They acted just before April 6, 2011, the date on which employers would no longer be able to issue retirement notices to their employees on the grounds that they had reached retirement age.
Doreen and Eddie, who knew nothing of the law change, got their retirement notices just weeks before the April deadline. They were among 203 Trust employees who would be 65 and over before October 1 to get their marching orders.
“The Government was saying it was about to give people the right to work as long as they liked – but that wasn’t the case if you were an employee of Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust,” says Eddie.
“There was an appeal process, but it came to nothing for everyone we know. We were forced to retire and we were devastated.” He has branded the Trust as “underhand and uncaring.” “It’s a caring service, but what they did to us was not. It was sneaky; they knew the deadline was approaching so they seized the moment and got rid of a whole load of us just in time,” he says.
“Do the Trust realise what this has done to our self-esteem and how down we are all feeling now? I don’t think so.”
He and Doreen feel like they were just figures on the wages bill. Doreen got her letter just weeks after her bonus for serving 20 years.”
They are taking it personally. How can they not, when life at their home in Primrose Way, Hoyland, has been turned upside-down?
The fact that retirement has been thrust on both of them makes it much harder to deal with. “We don’t have the other one to do the propping up. We’re both in the same boat, feeling the same way,” they say.
Doreen says: “We didn’t feel ready for retirement. Both of us felt we’d got so much more to give to the jobs we absolutely loved. We’d talked about carrying on for a few more years, then slowly reducing our days to ease ourselves into a different lifestyle, though the joke at work was that Eddie was such an integral part of the place. He would be on duty til the day he died.
“And we believed that we were valued members of staff; that our experience, and the wisdom that comes from having lived until you’re 65, actually mattered to our hospital bosses.”
Doreen wore her uniform for the last time on August 28; Eddie hung his up forever seven days later, on September 4.
They are just starting to realise they can have holidays whenever they like now and spend more time with their four children and nine grandchildren.
“That’s what retired people do, isn’t it,” says Doreen. “That’s what I am now; I’m not a nurse, running a 22-bed surgical ward on the night shift any more. Because someone has decided I’m too old for it. We are slowly acclimatising but it will take a long time to get rid of the anger. I am still bloody angry.”
Unions have branded the Trust’s axing of 203 people over 65 as a ‘cheap way to get people out of the door’. Andy Freeman, from Unison, said: “The Trust has been very clumsy in the way they’ve handled this; retirement is a very individual decision. Some of these people wanted to continue working because they have to.” They believe hospital services will suffer from the loss of so many years of experience in one fell swoop,
Eddie says: “The combined years of experience they have binned is immeasurable. Workplaces need a mix of young people and older, so that they get a range of experience and skills. We know a woman of 69 who had been nursing for 40 years. What she knows about the job and the patients you can’t teach at university.”
Sheffield teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust view
“We are very sorry that some members of staff were upset by the decision for them to retire. This is not a decision the Trust took lightly because we do acknowledge the service that people give to the hospital.
“However our retirement policy, prior to the recent change in legislation, was that when a person reaches 65, if their post was no longer required to meet service needs at that time or in the future, they would be required to retire. This had been the Trust’s policy for a number of years and there was an appeal process as part of the policy.
“Given the change in legislation on retirement earlier this year this situation is not likely to re occur.”
Abolition of Default Retirement Age
October 2011 marked the end for the Default Retirement Age (DRA), which was implemented in 2006 to allow employers to force employees to retire at 65. Employees could request to stay on after this age but employers could refuse. Age UK campaigned for the abolition of DRA on the grounds that it was unfair, that individual choice of when to retire was of utmost importance and that, in an ageing workforce, it was counterproductive to restrict the work that people can do by age alone. Scrapping the DRA does not mean that anyone has to stay at work if they don’t want to. It gives them the choice – and means workers of 65 now have the same job security as younger workers for the first time.