Age discrimination is the practice of letting a person's age unfairly become a factor when deciding who receives a new job, promotion, or other job benefit. It most commonly affects older workers who feel they have been discriminated against in favor of younger workers, but there have been cases involving younger workers being displaced by older workers. The problem of age discrimination appears to be widespread. A 2000 survey of more than 1,100 executives and 300 executive search firms by a Connecticut researcher found some startling admissions. Only 3 percent of the executives and 8 percent of the search firms said that "age was never a significant factor in hiring decisions." In addition, the survey found that the attention that executives are paying to age may be on the increase, despite strong government regulations against age discrimination. A second question revealed that 52 percent of the executives and 38 percent of the search firms—up from 45 percent and 21 percent, respectively, from just a year earlier—felt that "age becomes a key factor in job searches at or below the age of 50."
Age discrimination has officially been a major employment issue since 1967, when the U.S. government passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The act's stated purpose is "to promote employment of older persons based on their ability rather than age; to prohibit arbitrary age discrimination in employment; to help employers and workers find ways of meeting problems arising from the impact of age on employment." Specifically, the act prevents employees over the age of 40 from being unfairly fired, demoted, or offered reduced pay or benefits, and it makes it illegal to discriminate against a person on the basis of age in regards to any employment benefits. Older and younger workers must receive access to equal benefits, which generally include: the same payment options; the same type of benefits, such as health care and pension; and same amount of benefits. The ADEA applies to companies with more than 20 employees that are "engaged in industry affecting commerce." Only true employees are covered; independent contractors are not.
There are exceptions to these rules, but they are few in number and closely monitored. For example, companies are allowed to offer early retirement incentives to older workers without penalty. But the early retirement benefits can only be offered if participation in the plan is voluntary and all other parts of the plan are nondiscriminatory. A company cannot force its workers to accept an early retirement offer, nor can it offer an early retirement plan that reduces benefits as a worker's age increases.
There are also some exemptions regarding which employees are covered. Jobs that involve the public safety, such as police and fire work, are allowed to have age restriction clauses. Top-level executives who meet certain criteria are excluded from the ADEA. In addition, a company may still utilize an official seniority system, which has long been an accepted practice in the American workplace. The ADEA has strict rules about how a seniority system is to be administered, however, and requires that such systems include merit factors as well as years of employment as determining factors. Finally, if faced with an age discrimination suit, employers may argue that the job in question had a "bona fide occupation qualification (BFOQ)" that required a younger worker. If challenged in court, the company must prove that the BFOQ was legitimate and not just a ruse to skirt the law. Generally, this means proving that all people above the age limit for the position can be shown to be inappropriate for the job. This is extremely difficult to prove, so most companies do not try to challenge the ADEA in this manner.
Employers must prominently display notices about the ADEA and the protection it offers older workers. They must also maintain detailed records as required by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which can take action against an employer if it feels discrimination has occurred. Individuals may also file civil suits on their own. The plaintiff may sue to recover back pay, front pay, and liquidated damages from the employer. If an employer proves that the age discrimination was "willful," then back pay damages are doubled. State laws also permit punitive damages to be assessed, which can add millions of dollars to a judgement. To prove his or her case, the plaintiff can present direct evidence of discrimination (such as when the person was plainly told they were being fired because they are too old for the job), prove that a pattern of discrimination exists through the use of statistical analysis, or provide circumstantial evidence that discrimination occurred.
Since it was first written, the ADEA has been updated a number of times. The Older Workers Benefit Protection Act was passed in October 1990. Among its provisions were clear requirements that had to be met if a company wished to settle an ADEA lawsuit brought by an employee. The employee must sign a waiver releasing his or her claim, and the waiver must be "knowing and voluntary," meaning that it must be in writing; must refer to the specific portions of the ADEA that were applicable to this case; must provide the employee with some form of compensation, or "consideration," over and above what he or she would have normally received if they had not signed the waiver; must recommend, in writing, that the employee has the right to consult an attorney; must indicate that the employee has 21 days to sign the waiver; must be revocable for seven days after being signed by the employee; and must make certain information available to the employee if the case involves employment termination.
While not a direct update of the ADEA, a 1993 court case has proven to be extremely important in the field of age discrimination. In Hazen Paper Co. v. Biggins, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, even though a decision by the paper company adversely affected older workers more than younger workers, the decision did not constitute age discrimination. In the case in question, the company claimed that money was the basis for its decision, not the age of the employees affected, and the court accepted its defense. In cases since that time, the "cost, not age" defense has been widely accepted by the courts.
Recent court rulings have affirmed the idea that retirees are also protected from age discrimination. A recent Supreme Court case called Robinson v. Shell Oil Co. that was primarily about race issues determined that "employee benefits" encompass benefits provided to a company's current employees and to its retirees. As a result, there have been more court cases involving retirees and age discrimination under the ADEA's equal cost or equal benefit provisions. In the case Erie County Retirees Association v. County of Erie, the U.S. Third Circuit court ruled that, while companies could continue the common practice of reducing company-provided medical benefits once a retiree qualified for Medicare medical benefits, the companies had to follow the equal cost, equal benefit standards and could not reduce the benefits more than those standards allowed. Employers are also barred by the ADEA from retaliating against employees who have participated in ADEA litigation against the company in any way, be it filing a claim themselves or testifying at someone else's trial.
One of the tools an employee can use to prove age discrimination is comments made at the workplace. These comments, under certain circumstances, can come from the employee's supervisor, other management personnel, co-workers, or even the company's chief executive officer. Comments that are directly related to the job and the employee in question and that show bias are always admissible in court, while other comments face different qualifying standards. Comments from the CEO are almost always allowed because they are indicative of the company's official policy. Remarks made by senior managers and other employees, even if they are a year older or more, can be admissible if they indicate that a pattern of bias is present in the corporate culture.
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court made two important rulings that extended the scope of the ADEA. In Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., the plumbing company fired a 40-year employee, citing one reason for the firing that turned out to be not true. The employee sued, saying that the false reason offered was really just a pretext for the real reason—that the company wanted a younger worker. A jury agreed with the employee, but an appeals court overruled the jury, stating that the employee had to offer additional proof that he was discriminated against—just proving that the company lied about why they fired him was not enough to prove age discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, reinstating the original verdict that the employee was discriminated against. The court ruled that all the employee had to do to prove discrimination was prove that the company's original reason for firing him was false. He did not have to provide "pretext plus," as the rule requiring additional evidence of discrimination was called.
An even more significant case was Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents, in which the court sided with the employers. In the Kimel case, the court ruled by a 5-4 vote that under the 11th Amendment to the Constitution, state governments were shielded from age discrimination suits. In other words, no state employee could sue his employer for age discrimination. This does not totally wipe out an older employee's right to seek recourse, but it does make it tougher for employees. Every state has its own laws making age discrimination illegal, and employees may still take action under those state laws. But each state law is different and, in general, not as tough as federal laws. Some of the state laws are practically powerless, in fact. Near the end of 2000, two senators introduced legislation called the Older Workers Rights Restoration Act that would withhold federal funds from all states that did not sign a waiver allowing state employees to sue for damages under the ADEA.
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"Aging Angst." Association Management. November 2000.
Spero, Donald J. "An Overview of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act." Florida Mediation Group Web site ( http://www.floridamediationgroup.com/articles/ADEA.html ). September 27, 2000.
"Suspect Age Bias? Try to Prove It." Fortune. February 1,1999.