They’re just not the retiring type

The fastest growing segment of the workforce is the over-75 set — and as these stalwarts attest, work adds life

By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / May 22, 2010

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They have been on the job since the Nixon administration, stocking vending machines, making chocolates, and polishing bowling balls. They could have retired years, even decades, ago.

But they refuse to stop working. It’s about much more than a paycheck.

For a loyal coterie of workers at Phillips Family Hospitality in Dorchester, staying employed means staying healthy, active — and alive.

“It’s what keeps me going, you know?’’ said Tony Piccuito, 91, as he unloaded trays of water and other beverages from the trunk of the Ford Taurus he drives to work daily from Weymouth. Piccuito, the energetic owner of a sharp sense of humor and a tendency to ignore doctor’s orders to ease up, pushed stacks of bottles in a cart taller than his stocky frame. “You keep working and you forget about how you feel.’’

Piccuito is one of 10 Phillips Family Hospitality employees who have stuck with their jobs well into what are supposed to be the golden years. They make up a small part of the workforce at this Morrissey Boulevard enterprise that includes Boston Bowl, Phillips Candy House, Freeport Tavern, a Comfort Inn, and a Ramada hotel. But their enduring presence says much more than their numbers.

They stand at the gray extreme of a gradually aging labor force. While the number of employed Americans age 75 and over is still small (less than 1 percent ), their ranks grew 188 percent between 1977 and 2009, the most dramatic increase among any age group, ac cording to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The gain reflects the changing mindset of employees approaching retirement age, said Deborah Russell, director of workforce issues at AARP. Often, economic reasons fuel seniors’ desire to keep working. Others find a sense of identity an d community at their jobs.

“The assumption by employers was that this person was going to retire. But the reality is changing as people have to work longer or want to work longer,’’ Russell said. “It’s a trend that’s continuing to grow.’’

The old timers on Morrissey Boulevard say it’s not about finances. They have saved enough money over their lengthy careers as they outlasted several generations of owners at the complex. For them, retirement means facing the end.

“The obituaries are loaded with people who retired,’’ said office manager Anne Morad, 72, and one of the youngest among her senior colleagues. “You have to be careful not to stand around too long or people will think you’re dead.’’

Barbara Anastasia, 79, was eager to return to work at the hotel’s front desk after shattering her knee in the parking lot six months ago.

“I’ve outlived everyone. Why sit at home?’’ said Anastasia, who was honored in February as an “industry star’’ by the Massachusetts Lodging Association. Her injury has left her with a slight limp and she is only working part-time, for now.

“I just don’t like hanging around,’’ she said. “I want to meet people and keep busy.’’

And the bosses are happy to accommodate Anastasia and her colleagues. They describe them as being more loyal and reliable than some younger workers.

“We’re very accepting. We’re in hospitality and have a culture of doing the best for our customers and we do the same thing with our employees,’’ said Steve Nagle, who is part of the fourth generation running the business. Philip Strazzula founded the company in 1925, peddling chocolate and candies hand-crafted in his Revere kitchen. The family eventually moved the candy house to Dorchester and expanded its empire over the years.

“We offer flexible schedules and allow them to work as few hours as they want,’’ Nagle said. “And in turn, we benefit because they’re great workers.’’

But on occasion, the older employees are a bit too eager to come to work.

“Sometimes they show up when they’re sick,’’ said Joe Sammartino Jr., vice president of Phillips Family Hospitality. “Like, I’ll try to tell Tony to go home or I’ll have to call his wife to keep him at home.’’

On a recent morning, Lou Pasquale dashed through the complex with the quick step of a hurried college student late for class, rather than an octogenarian. Pasquale, 84, wearing a gray suit and silver tie that matched his slick hair, shook hands and flashed a Cadillac smile at everyone he greeted — the maids, the office managers, the chefs, the customers.

He calls himself an ambassador — and no one disputes his title — and has held every possible job at the complex, including mechanic, cook, promotion manager, and construction worker. He’s proud of his work and more proud of his managers and coworkers.

“You name it. I’ve done it,’’ Pasquale said during a rare moment when he stood still. “People that stop and want to retire, I think it hurts them. It’s very important mentally and physically. It gives you a great incentive to live a better life.’’

Of the group, only Mildred Reavey has tasted retirement. It was short-lived. She and her husband worked at a research lab for Boston shaving giant Gillette and took an early retirement package in the 1980s. He became sick and died soon after.

“We didn’t really have a good retirement,’’ Reavey said in the back room at Phillips Candy House as she gently brushed the tops of the milk chocolate turtles until they shined under the fluorescent lights. “I was kind of lost.’’

A friend suggested that Reavey, a chocolate lover, apply for a job at the candy store, a short drive from her home. Reavey, who had just turned 64, thought they would never hire her. But they did — 22 years ago.

“You probably think I’m crazy,’’ she said as she lugged a 12-pound tray of chocolate turtles to the front of the shop. “I don’t know. But I’m still working.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at