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A Middle Ground For Older Workers

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IN theory, being paid not to work could appear to be a dream come true. In practice, it can be far from enviable. Just ask a German production manager named Helmut Herzog, who has been at home for two years, drawing his regular paycheck while waiting for a call to return to work.

The arrangement began when his company, a manufacturing firm, made extensive cutbacks. With almost no one left to supervise, Mr. Herzog was sent home until his managerial skills would again be needed. Because he is almost 50 and has spent 25 years with the company, his seniority makes it almost impossible for his employer to let him go. A standardized point system tallies such factors as a worker's years of service, age, and number of children. An employee with at least 40 points has a right to say he or she won't accept what Herzog calls a ``blue letter'' of dismissal - the German equivalent of a pink slip.

In fact, so protective are the country's policies regarding older workers that, as Herzog explains, ``People over the age of 54 cannot be fired for social reasons.'' For poor performance, yes. In a downsizing, no.

Herzog has used his time off productively, earning another degree and turning unfinished space on the second floor of the family's house into an extra bedroom. Yet he is impatient to return to work, even though he appreciates the security of a steady paycheck and the eventual certainty of another job.

What a contrast between his protected status and corporate practices in the United States, where legions of workers in their 50s are being forced to leave because of downsizing. Some will find new jobs at comparable levels of responsibility and income. Others will not. Sweetened pensions help, but they cannot compensate for being forced out a decade or so before a normal retirement age.

Herzog calls the practice of letting senior workers go ``a crime'' because of the difficulties they can face in finding new jobs. But downsizing has become so common in American firms that one-quarter of employees between the ages of 51 and 61 think they have a 50-50 chance of being laid off without benefits within 12 months, according to a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

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