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At Aichi pharmacy chain, seniors get to work at their own pace

Chunichi Shimbun

Starting this fall, Sugi Pharmacy Co., headquartered in Obu, Aichi Prefecture, will offer seniors a new type of job contract in order to help its older employees keep fitter for longer as well as address the company’s manpower shortage.

By offering flexible working conditions as stock clerks, the company hopes to help the elderly expand their social circles and inspire a new sense of purpose.

Sugi Pharmacy has launched the campaign as a small-scale pilot in Nishio and Hekinan, but plans to expand the program to 100 stores in an area centering around Aichi Prefecture by February 2018, the end of its current business year.

Hisako Suzuki, 73, is among eight people, aged 65 to 80, who work at Sugi Pharmacy’s Kira store in Nishio mainly on days when it receives large stock shipments. On a work day, Suzuki comes to the store with her friend, a 67-year-old woman.

The women each grab a green container full of daily necessities — healthy food and other items — check where each item belongs and proceed to stock the shelves.

Occasionally, they would chat and smile.

The working arrangement offered by the company is part of the Lively Senior Club Project, which welcomes healthy people aged 65 and older.

A key characteristic of the work program enables participants to set their own schedules, working whenever they choose and even leaving earlier if they feel tired.

They are given the title of Senior Associate and take on light jobs at the stores. They can go at their own pace because the company does not check how quickly they work.

Their salary is determined by the amount of work completed, so they are not bound to specific working hours.

“If we get paid hourly, I’d feel bad because we’d get the same pay as someone who works faster,” said Suzuki.

They are also not bound to specific working days. The women would let the store manager know at least a day in advance whether they will be available to work.

Once her container is empty, Suzuki removes its sticker and affixes it in a book that tracks her workload.

The store uses the list of days on which they expect to receive a large shipment as a guideline on deciding the working days for Senior Associates, but the manager will not make requests about how many days or hours they work in a given period.

“I felt a huge sense of achievement when I was able to give a gift from the money I earned to my grandchild for entering a school,” Suzuki said.

The contract with Senior Associates is similar to that of freelance specialists.

“There’s no precedence in the retail industry, so we had difficulty establishing the system,” said a Sugi Pharmacy representative.

The company calculates the pay rate such that a Senior Associate earns as much as a part-timer working at the same speed.

With plenty of time on their hands at home, this working arrangement allows the elderly to spend time with their colleagues and become active members of society.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the average life expectancy in Japan was 86.61 for women and 80.21 for men in 2013.

The healthy life expectancy, which indicates the age in which a person can live independently without requiring care or remaining in bed, was 74.21 for women and 71.19 for men.

Sugi Pharmacy began the pilot two years ago and there are currently 77 Senior Associates, with an average age of 69, working in 17 stores located in Aichi Prefecture.

The company plans to increase the number of Senior Associates to 500 in 100 stores mainly in Aichi, with the goal of expanding to other regions eventually.

“Our main goal is to extend the healthy life expectancy of the elderly. I want them to work with us for as long as they can,” said Katsunori Sugiura, president of Sugi Pharmacy.

Suzuki has worked at the store for two years and has made new friends.

Her friends told her that she “looks livelier now” than in the past when she spent the better part of her days at home.

Now she pays more attention to her physical and emotional health and “has started stretching every day and copying newspaper columns,” Suzuki said.

Suzuki wraps up her work day, after having clocked in a little over an hour.

“We’re going out for tea now,” she announces happily as the two women leave the store.

This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on June 9.