AARP extols beach movies; Silent about discrimination

bongos

The AARP has been completely silent about the Obama administration’s recent endorsement of blatant age discrimination in employment by Starbucks, Walmart and Microsoft,  not to mention the hiring program operated by the federal government that blatantly discriminates against older workers.

So what does concern the AARP, which has 37 million members aged 50 and above and describes itself as the leading advocacy group for older Americans?

A Google search on Wednesday for “AARP” led to  AARP.org  (a.k.a. ‘AARP – Health, Travel Deals, Baby Boomers, Over 50, Online Games, Retirement Plans).  The AARP’s main web page today is focused on beach-themed movies and editorial copy that appears to lead to various AARP-branded commercial services that sell products related to caregiving, internet use, etc.

Yes, the AARP is trumpeting  beach movies:  “To mark the 50th anniversary of the Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon classic Beach Blanket Bingo, we take a look at 10 other beach movies that have a lot more to offer than surfboards and bongos.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if the AARP was about more than surfboards and bongos?

Beach

ADA: Strength Through Organizing

Disability

Twenty five years ago today,  former President George H.W. Bush signed into law one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in  world history – the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA is the world’s first comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities.  The ADA makes it  illegal for employers to discriminate against qualified job applicants and employees based on their physical or mental disabilities. The law also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to applicants and employees who need them because of their disabilities, unless doing so would cause undue hardship. Until the ADA was passed, employers refused to hire workers who needed mobility aids, such as a wheel chair.

Passage of the act represents a hard-fought struggle and an  incredible triumph for disabled Americans, who were once the most neglected and powerless in the country.

The foundation for the ADA was set years earlier  in 1977 with the adoption of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first U.S. federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities.  That law extended civil rights to people with disabilities in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance, including schools and employment services. However, Section 504 l

anguished without regulations to implement the act.  Disability rights activists got fed up in 1977 and organized major demonstrations in 10 cities, including a 150-person sit-in in the office of the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare in San Francisco’s federal building . The sit-in lasted 28 days and prompted then-HEW Secretary Joseph Califano to sign the implementing regulations for Section 504.

One of the organizers of the 1977 sit-in, the late Kitty Cone,  who had  muscular dystrophy and used a wheel chair, would later write:

”For the first time we had concrete federal civil rights protection. We had shown ourselves and the country through network TV that we, the most hidden, impoverished, pitied group of people in the nation were capable of waging a deadly serious struggle that brought about profound social change.”

Cone called  the sit in “a truly transforming experience the likes of which most of us had never seen before or ever saw again. Those of us with disabilities were imbued with a new sense of pride, strength, community and confidence. For the first time, many of us felt proud of who we were.  And we understood that our isolation and segregation stemmed from societal policy, not from some personal defects on our part and our experiences with segregation and discrimination were not just our own personal problems.”

The more one learns about the struggle for workers’ rights in America, the more it becomes apparent that anything is possible when people band together to demand their rights.

 

Starbucks’ De-Caffeinated Response to Age Discrim.

Starbucks

A spokesperson for Starbucks made a mystifying distinction Wednesday in an apparent effort to justify what appears to be blatant age discrimination in hiring under the recently announced 100,000 Opportunity Initiative.

Starbucks is spearheading an effort by more than a dozen major American corporations to hire 100,000 16- to 24- year olds by 2018.  Other partners include Walmart and Microsoft,

In an email, a spokesperson for Starbucks made a distinction between a collective hiring initiative and individual hiring decisions. “Age is not a factor in individual hiring decisions, and our 100,000 jobs for Opportunity Youth is incremental to our already ambitious hiring goals across the nation,” writes Jarryd (no last name provided)  of Starbucks Media Team.

Yeah but the Age Discrimination in Employment Act  (ADEA) makes no distinction between hiring 100,000 workers or hiring individual workers. The ADEA unambiguously states that it is unlawful for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire” any individual “because of such individual’s age.” Would any of these corporations defend a plan to hire 100,000 Christians on the grounds that it was also willing to hire a Muslim or Jew?

The corporations are couching the initiative as a well-intentioned effort to help young people who face systemic barriers to jobs and education. That’s irrelevant too. The ADEA prohibits age discrimination (with a few exceptions that are not applicable here). Does anyone doubt that good intentions were used to justify discriminatory laws throughout history that oppressed women and minorities?  Besides, older workers also face systemic barriers to jobs and education. As a result of age discrimination, a disproportionate number of women and minorities are dumped into an unwanted “early retirement” and decades of poverty or near poverty.

Starbucks also attempted to characterize the future hires as “youth.”   Jarryd said the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative “has the collective goal of engaging at least 100,000 Opportunity Youth.”  However, the dictionary defines youth as “adolescence”; the term is not applicable to young workers who are over the age of 18.

It is a laudable goal to help unemployed youth and young adults find jobs but age discrimination is inherently harmful to the fabric of American society. And did I forget to mention – it’s illegal!

Jarryd did not directly respond to my specific question – “What legal justification exists for engaging in age discrimination in hiring under the initiative?”

Meanwhile, queries to the media office of the U.S. Department of Labor  have been ignored.  Starbucks sent out a press release in which it quoted U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez as calling the initiative it a “win-win.” He also expressed hope that other employers would join in. In an open letter to Perez, I noted that by enacting the ADEA the U.S. Congress announced its clear preference for public policy initiative over discriminatory hiring. Did I mention that it is  illegal to discriminate on the basis of age?

The problem of age discrimination is so prevalent in American society that it is invisible.

If it’s not bad enough that the U.S. Secy. of Labor endorsed the initiative, not one media outlet even questioned the discriminatory nature of the program.

Meanwhile, groups that one might hope would express displeasure about this celebration of corporate age discrimination have been  silent,  including so-called advocacy groups like the AARP (the leading purveyor of Medigap insurance in the United States) and unions. Can it be that these groups are not knowledgeable about  the ADEA?   Is it  just that they don’t care?  I would argue that we all should care about age discrimination in employment because it  exacts a terrible toll on its victims and society picks up the tab in lost productivity and higher health and social welfare costs.  Moreover, epidemic and unaddressed age discrimination undermines the basic principle upon which America was founded – equal justice.

AN OPEN LETTER TO U.S. LABOR SECY. THOMAS E. PEREZ

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez

DEAR U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR SECRETARY THOMAS E. PEREZ:

I see that you have given your imprimatur to a new hiring initiative by more than a dozen major American corporations that seems on its face to blatantly violate the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

Starbucks, Microsoft and Walmart, among others, recently announced the “100,000 Opportunities Initiative” to hire 100,000 16- to 24-year-olds by 2018. The program appears to be an end run around the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), which prohibits age discrimination in hiring.

You are quoted in a press release  on Starbucks’ web site as stating, “The corporate leaders championing the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative recognize that promoting career opportunities for youth is a win-win, and I hope more employers will follow their lead.”

The press release states the initiative includes apprenticeships, internships, training programs, and “both part-time and full-time jobs.”  The ADEA unambiguously states that it is unlawful for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire” any individual “because of such individual’s age.”

The corporations are couching the initiative as a well-intentioned effort to help young people “who face systemic barriers to jobs and education.”  Yet, federal law does not allow employers to discriminate because of supposedly good intentions.

By adopting the ADEA, the U.S. Congress stated its preference for strong public policy over age discrimination.  The Obama Administration and the DOL should support programs that, for example, prepare high school drop-outs for careers rather than sanction age discrimination by America’s largest corporations.

As I’m sure you know, younger workers do not have a monopoly on systemic barriers to jobs and education. The unemployment rate is high at both ends of the age spectrum but older workers often are forced out of the workplace by age discrimination. Many are dumped into a financially ill-advised “early retirement” as a result of disproportionate long-term, chronic unemployment. A recent report by AARP found that half of the people in the U.S. between the ages of 45 to 70 who lost their job during the last five years are still not working. Older workers who are forced to retire at age 62 incur at least a 25 percent cut in Social Security benefits for the rest of their lives.  Age discrimination literally consigns many older Americans (especially women and minorities) to a life sentence of  poverty or near poverty .

It is unfortunate that the corporations participating in this initiative  refer indirectly to President Barack Obama’s 2010 executive order establishing the Pathways “Recent Graduates” Program, which permits federal agencies engage in age discrimination. The press release announcing the “100,000 Opportunities Initiative” begins this way: “Top U.S. – Based Companies Create Pathways to Economic Opportunity for Young Americans.”  This executive order arguably operates as a legal exemption to the ADEA for federal sector employers but  does not permit private sector corporations to violate the ADEA.

You may ask – why would older workers want entry-level jobs? Author Michael Gates Gill wrote a best-selling book in 2007 entitled, “How Starbucks Saved My Life.”  At age 53, Gill found himself chronically unemployed after being laid off from a high-paid job at an ad agency. He had no health insurance and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. His salvation was a job as an entry-level employee at Starbucks. Today, as a result of the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, Gill would find a sign on Starbucks’ door stating: Older Workers Need Not Apply.

Please reassess your support for the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, which really is just a pragmatic effort by big corporations to recruit and train young workers without having to bother with older workers who are disproportionately represented in the ranks of the long-term unemployed.

I understand you are a former civil rights attorney. I am sure you know that age discrimination is no different from any other type of employment discrimination. Age discrimination, like discrimination on the basis of race, sex or religion, is founded on false and harmful stereotypes, fear and animus directed toward a discrete group. I can’t imagine the DOL would support an initiative by America’s biggest corporations to hire only whites, men or Christians.  It is no more acceptable to support discrimination against older workers.

Respectfully, Patricia G. Barnes, J.D., author of Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace.