Federal age discrimination act turns 50 this year, but not a lot to celebrate

August 28, 2017

The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which passed in 1967, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

But there might not be a lot to celebrate:  age discrimination still exists in some form in today’s workforce.

Under the federal law, organizations that employ 20 or more employees cannot discriminate against applicants for employment, or employees, on the basis of age 40 and over.

 In celebration of this anniversary, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal enforcement agency for discrimination laws such as the ADEA, convened a panel of experts to discuss the prevalence of age discrimination in today’s workforce.

The EEOC cited experts who told the agency that “persistent age discrimination and stereotypes about older workers continue to channel older workers out of the workforce, limiting further economic growth.”

Acting EEOC chairwoman Victoria Lipnic described the discrimination as a “waste” of “knowledge, skills and talent of older workers,” adding that “outdated assumptions about age and work deprive people of economic opportunity and stifle job growth and productivity.”

According to AARP, which provided testimony to the EEOC, nearly two-thirds of workers aged 55-64 report age as a barrier to getting a job. Participants of the meeting called for bolder action under the law to protect workers.

The federal law received a devastating blow from a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2009 when it ruled that, to prove discrimination under ADEA, litigants must prove that age was the key factor for causing the employment discrimination.

Other discrimination laws provide the chance to prove a lesser standard of “motivating factor.” As a result, the law makes it difficult to prevail in court, which makes it extremely challenging for victims to find legal representation to bring their cases forward.

Earlier this year, the House and Senate each proposed new legislation that would expand the burden of proof, making it more likely that discriminatory employment decisions become actionable.

There is no doubt that age discrimination exists in some form in today’s workforce.

A human resources colleague recently shared with me how the company’s CEO complained to her when she brought forward older workers, even condemning her for hiring an older female, saying something to the effect that younger workers won’t want to work there when they see the older woman sitting in the cafeteria.

Employers falsely believe that older workers are slow and technologically inexperienced. Some even recruit for workers that are “digital native,” seeking only those younger people who grew up in the technology boom.

Employers will recruit “recent grads” or “college students” in job postings to direct attention for the jobs to younger workers. These are signs of age discrimination.

Companies need not wait to see if and when the legislation is enacted and if the new law makes it easier to prove discriminatory behavior to keep an open mind about hiring older workers.

Employers should examine their hiring and employment practices to make sure processes and expectations are in place so that age is not a consideration in hiring and other employment practices such as layoffs, promotions, training and other employment opportunities.