LAUREL – Olivia Jackson’s hands recorded every day of the 45 years she worked. Her palms are cracked and dusty white with calluses; her black fingers are lined and worn. The eyes, however, sparkle – hinting at a different story.
“Here come the babies,” she whispers excitedly, as a woman walks in with an infant and her young daughter.
“Hello. Welcome to Wal-Mart,” Jackson says. Leaning down to the little girl hiding between her mother’s legs, she asks, “Would you like a sticker?”
The little girl nods sheepishly and Jackson places a yellow smiley-faced sticker on her collar.
At 70, Jackson has been greeting people at the door of Wal-Mart since the store at 3549 Russett Green East opened, almost five years ago.
Jackson typifies the 4 million older Americans in the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At her store, there are 30 employees over the age of 55, says store manager Mark Gilchrease. In Wal-Mart stores around the state, there are about 1,100 older workers and nationally, the chain employs about 109,200 seniors.
The reason so many older Americans join stores like Wal-Mart and Home Depot is that more Americans are envisioning a working retirement, says Deborah Russell, a senior program specialist with the American Association of Retired Persons.
Not everyone chooses to return to non-skilled labor, however. The Department of Aging, for example, runs a national employment program that targets low-income individuals, 55 and older.
“You get a little mixture of everything. A lot of the people we see, 75 percent of them are women and a majority of those are not married and they are looking to supplement their income,” says Karen Fields, director of the Senior Aids Program.
Another reason for the increase in working seniors, Fields says, is that the number of jobs is growing faster than the population. Businesses are trying to attract older workers to fill the positions they have open.
Jackson came to Wal-Mart after retiring from Tuerke-Becker’s Leather Goods, based in Odenton. She began working at Tuerke-Becker’s in 1954 as an elevator operator and worked her way up to a supervisor receiving merchandise in the warehouse. She was there for 40 years when the store closed the warehouse and Jackson’s job was eliminated.
“I said, `I am old enough to draw Social Security, I’ll retire,'” Jackson says. “I must have stayed home about three months and said, `Oh no, this is not for me.'”
“I had been working so long, I didn’t know what to do with myself,” Jackson said.
She works full time at Wal-Mart, 35 to 40 hours a week. In addition to greeting, she answers the phones and helps customers. Whenever she can, Jackson volunteers for extra work.
“Lots of people who come in, just want to talk,” Jackson says, her eyes darting back and forth to the door. “But that’s OK, because I love to talk, too. I had one woman come from Silver Spring because she just needed to talk to someone and didn’t know where else to go. She was depressed, you see.” Jackson has gotten to know the regular customers who smile and wave when they see her at the door. She travels the 25 miles from her Washington home to the Laurel store because she likes the job and loves the people.
When she first applied, she was disappointed because they wanted her as a greeter. She was afraid that because of her age they didn’t think she could do anything else. But, Jackson says, it was her personality that the manager wanted at the door. Her eternally cheerful demeanor was something most employees didn’t have at 6:00 a.m., the time Jackson starts her shifts.
“Hell, she runs circles around my 20-year-olds. If I had about 30 more like her, I’d be set,” Gilchrease says.
Rob Cowles, who works in the CellularOne booth next to the door where Jackson greets customers, says she is extremely outgoing.
“Miss Olivia follows the rules very strictly,” Cowles says. “Some people just stand here and if someone wants a sticker they give it to them. She is very dedicated to what she does.”
Cowles says most greeters are elderly or retired and they took the job because they didn’t want to spend their retirement on a couch at home.
You’d never find Jackson sitting on a couch when there was work to be done. “You wanna talk about work? I grew up on a farm.” Jackson says. “I’ve learned to work ever since I was a little girl.”
Growing up in Henry County, Ala., Jackson, her sister and two brothers worked on their grandfather’s farm, where they helped pick peanuts. After he died, their father worked for a while as a sharecropper before moving the family to Florida where Jackson finished high school. After graduation, Jackson moved to Washington to live with her aunt.
In Washington, she met her husband, Joseph Jackson. He worked in the Washington public schools until his retirement. Jackson says he is busy enjoying his retirement and has no urge to work again.
They share their home with Jackson’s 90-year-old mother, Laura Ward.
“My mother could outwork me if she didn’t have a heart problem,” Jackson says, pulling out pictures of her mother’s 90th birthday party.
As Jackson continues to flip through the photos, her lunch relief comes to take her place at the door. As she hands over her sticker gun and takes off the blue vest, a group of young women walk over to see if she wants to join them for lunch.
“I guess that’s all,” Jackson says, putting away her photos. Lowering her voice she says, “You know, some people they just stand around all day and talk. Socializing is fine but I just can’t stand around. This lady said once, `When Miss Olivia comes to work, she comes to work.’ And that’s true.” Jackson glances ever-so-briefly at her hands, before continuing. “Work never killed nobody.”