The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) protects against age discrimination under Title VII. Specifically, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which was passed in 1967 by congress, covers discrimination against employees who are 40 or more years old. This topic should be a big concern for employers, since the number of elderly workers is increasing as the baby boomer population matures. It is estimated that as many as twenty-percent of the claims filed with the EEOC are for age discrimination. Also, age discrimination settlements can be considerably higher than typical discrimination cases. Upon research, the average award amount between 1955 and 1988 was $219,000. (www.ama.net). For this reason alone, employers should take care of how they handle their aging workers.
As mentioned above, the EEOC is responsible for enforcing the age discrimination regulations, including the ADEA of 1967. This regulation is in effect supposed to promote employment of older persons based on their ability rather than age; to prohibit arbitrary age discrimination in employment; and to help employers and workers find ways of meeting problems arising from the impact of age on employment. (www.eeoc.gov). The ADEA presides over the boundaries for age discrimination in all aspects of employment. It not only protects against discrimination for employees, but job applicants as well. Even job advertisements must not include age discrimination. For example, an employer cannot list in its job postings that it is looking for new college graduates because this would single out older, perhaps just as qualified, workers. Age discrimination is also unlawful in apprenticeship programs, pre-employment inquiries, and benefits. The ADEA applies to any company that employs more than 20 people, and age can only be a job requirement if it can be shown that it is a bona fide occupational qualification, but this can be very difficult to prove.
Some cases of age discrimination that I came across while researching this topic include: Parrish v. Immanuel Medical Center (Bennett-Alexander, p.418.). Surprisingly, many of the companies referenced in age discrimination cases were big-name companies. Some of these included: Westinghouse Electric, Northrop Grumman, Continental Airlines, First Union Corp., and Detroit Edison.
In the case involving Parrish and Immanuel Medical Center, the discrimination claim was filed by 66 year old Mary Ruth Parrish, member of a protected class. She alleged that she was discriminated against because of her age after she returned from work from a leave and was told she had to transfer positions instead of returning to her former job. Originally, she was a registrar and scheduled patient appointments. She was consistently given good performance reviews and was very accurate, despite not being as quick as some of the other workers. With her claim, she needed to prove that she was qualified for the job and was able to meet all the legitimate job requirements. It was up to the employer to prove that the opposite was true. In this case, the court found that even though the company alleged and their defense was that Parrish was slow and not able to keep up with the new technology, they did not have the proof they needed to transfer her. They (Immanuel Medical Center) would have needed to prove her job performance and contributions were not meeting set objectives, regardless of age, which they did not. In fact, she was consistently given good performance reviews.
Understanding the many qualifications of the older worker has taken some time, but many of todays companies are beginning to realize the value of such individuals. Many aging workers are reluctant to retire at the standard 62 years of age. Some may have financial reasons, but others just want to continue to work. One problem that may bring up age discrimination cases is the downsizing of companies. Because of downswings in the economy, companies feel the need to downsize; and the older workers tend to be the majority of those let go. It may be through early retirement packages, but oftentimes companies keep the younger workers with less seniority that they may not have to pay as much. Once let go, the older employee often has a much harder time finding a new job.
The key for businesses is to minimize their risk for age discrimination lawsuits. It can be much less costly to prevent the lawsuit than to have to pay for a long and costly trial. What can a business do in terms of prevention? The first step is to be able to recognize age discrimination as an important issue. Then a company needs to look within and assess the culture and find out how the employees feel about how they are treated and how older workers are treated. Communication is key in how a business is run. The company should also research the regulations and how other businesses are dealing with the issue. If necessary, policies, training, recruiting, hiring practices, and job descriptions may need to be thoroughly evaluated and possible revised. The time spent on documenting possible offenses may be better spent in preventing them. Overall, the morale of employees is what prevents claims. High morale and productivity is built by showing older workers that they are valued by the company and have a place in the environment.