The Lack of Equal Justice for All

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There was an article in the New York Times recently about the elusiveness of justice for African-Americans in the criminal justice system.

This obviously reflects ingrained racism but it is also a symptom of a wider problem – the lack of equal justice for the poor and the middle class in America.

The leadership of our nation’s civil and criminal justice system, the U.S. Supreme Court, does not serve as a role model for equal justice for all. And the U.S. Congress, which holds the power of the purse-strings over the judicial branch, provides no discernible oversight as to how the court system spends taxpayer money.

An egregious example of the wider problem is  the U.S. Supreme Court‘s refusal to allow its proceedings to be broadcast. This is really an issue about transparency and accountability.  The leadership of the third branch of government in the world’s leading democracy has chosen not to be transparent and or accountable. And if you don’t like it, tough!

The Court’s disdainful attitude toward the American public was not acceptable after television attained broad popularity fifty years ago and it is completely unacceptable in the Internet age. The Court exists to serve the public, not the Court.  This doesn’t mean the Court is subject to the whims of the majority but that the Court must be guided by founding American principles of equality and justice for all.

In my new book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, I focus on the civil justice system, which  has utterly failed to protect older workers from irrational and harmful age discrimination. This is particularly true for vulnerable older workers (i.e. minorities and women).

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 was weak to begin with and has been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has made it almost impossible to win a federal age discrimination lawsuit. Age discrimination has become normalized in American society and is trickling down to ever younger workers (i.e., the youth apartheid state of Silicon Valley).  But younger workers have years to rebound, while older workers often are plunged into a penurious old age of deprivation.

I suggest the judiciary create a special federal court to hear appeals in  discrimination cases. This court could be staffed with federal judges who are both educated in and dedicated to the concept of equal justice. This court would not be limited to age discrimination but would decide appeals in all cases alleging discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation and disability, etc.

Age discrimination represents a kind of government subsidy for employers, by allowing them to replace more expensive older workers with cheap young labor. Taxpayers  pick up the tab in the form of higher social welfare costs, including health care and Social Security benefits.  I doubt that most taxpayers would want to pay this subsidy if they knew they were paying it.

Alternate Ways to Advocate for Older Workers

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For years, older workers in the United States have been subject to epidemic, unaddressed age discrimination.

I recently wrote a book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, which lays out the problem in graphic and undeniable detail. Older workers have far fewer rights under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act than do protected groups under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion and national origin.  Also, the U.S. Congress and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have virtually ignored an unprecedented rise in age discrimination complaints since the onset of the Great Recession.

To my knowledge, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace is the first book to seriously examine the systemic nature of age discrimination in the workplace in modern times.  It may not be perfect but I submit that it makes a compelling case for change. Yet, in recent weeks, I have contacted numerous officials at the organization that is widely believed to be the chief advocacy group for older Americans.  Among others, I emailed the president of the AARP, the director of the AARP Foundation, and the head of the AARP Foundation Legal Section. I have received no response.

Given the overwhelming apathy toward age discrimination in the workplace in the United States, how can older workers create the necessary incentives to improve public policy and the law?

Two countries, Australia and Denmark, have taken a far more aggressive approach to age discrimination in employment than the United States.

Australia appointed its first Age Discrimination Commissioner on July 30, 2011 to a five-year term. Commissioner Susan Ryan recently commissioned the first “national prevalence survey” on age discrimination in the workplace. “[T]his new survey will provide the first national picture, reporting the experiences of people who have been discriminated against, and employers large and small … It will provide a strong basis for better policy and for more positive action by employers and government.”  This type of survey is desperately needed in the United States, where age discrimination is hidden by catch-phrases like  “long-term unemployment” and “early retirement.”

Another model worthy of examination exists in Denmark. The DaneAge Association is an independent, non-profit national membership organization founded in 1986 to provide advocacy “through an ongoing dialogue with the government and the public, promoting a society without age barriers and ageism.”  DaneAge has 690,000 members in 217 Local chapters across Denmark, including 15,775 volunteers who engaged in local advocacy. Among other things, the organization, which has approximately 100 staff members,  provides “free-of-charge and impartial legal advice and counsel” by lawyers and other professionals. Denmark is widely regarded as having the highest quality of life  for its citizens in the world.

For years, older workers in America have been dumped into the quicksand of long-term unemployment, relegated to menial and poorly paid work and, finally, forced into a penurious and unwanted early retirement.  This is because the ADEA was weak to begin with and has been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Congress must  insure  that  older workers  at least have the same level of protection against employment discrimination that is afforded to protected groups under Title VII.  An  discrimination commissioner could champion the rights of older workers. By contrast, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission  received more than 21,000 complaints of age discrimination last year and filed only SEVEN lawsuits with age discrimination claims.  And older workers deserve to have an independent, non–profit  advocacy group that will aggressively fight for the rights of older workers in the halls of Congress and across the nation.

U.S. Gov: Older Workers Need Not Apply

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Why is the federal government engaging in systemic, blatant age discrimination in hiring?

President Barack H. Obama signed an Executive Order 13562  in 2010 that allows federal agencies to bypass older workers and hire “recent graduates.”  The highly-questionable justification for the “Pathways Program” was that the federal government was at a competitive disadvantage in hiring promising young workers during the worst economic downturn in 100 years. Really?  Moreover, Obama claimed he was acting in the pursuit of a “diverse workforce that includes students and recent graduates, who infuse the workplace with their enthusiasm, talents, and unique perspectives.”  Does that mean older workers  infuse the workplace with lack of enthusiasm, no talent and mediocrity?

The Pathways Program, which went into effect in the summer of 2013, violates the plain language of the U.S. Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). Under the ADEA, it is illegal for an employer – any employer – to use age as a consideration in the hiring process.   The “recent graduates” program is open to applicants who have completed a qualifying post-high school educational program (e.g., technical or vocational school; two-or-four year college or university; graduate or professional school) within the preceding two years.  The overwhelming majority of “recent graduates” are under the age of 30.

The Pathways Program clearly discriminates against older workers, including workers over the age of 40 who fall under the umbrellas of the ADEA.   The ADEA states:

  • Employers cannot fail or refuse to hire any individual “because of such individual’s age,” and/or
  • Print and publish “any notice or advertisement relating to employment … indicating any preference, limitation, specification, or discrimination, based on age.”

There is no question that unemployment is a serious problem for younger workers but unemployment also is a serious problem for older workers. The latter are disproportionately represented in the ranks of  long-term unemployed and   often are forced into an ill-advised and penurious early retirement because they can’t find decent work due to age discrimination.    Solving the unemployment problem for younger workers on the backs of older workers represents appalling public policy and is a disgraceful throwback to pre-ADEA days when employment ads regularly specified age cut-offs.

In my new book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, I argue that age discrimination has become normalized in society as a result of the failure of the ADEA and is trickling down to workers who were once considered young.  It is entirely foreseeable under the Pathways “recent graduates” program that a 35-or -40 year-old with excellent qualifications could lose a job to a 25-year-old recent college graduate with no qualifications.  Almost fifty years after the passage of the ADEA, America has come full circle.

The Pathways Program is a testament to hypocrisy and breeds disrespect for the law.  If the federal  government won’t follow the ADEA, why should private sector employers?

The late gerontologist Robert N. Butler, the founding director of the National Institute on Aging who coined the term “ageism,”  wrote, “The tragedy of old age is not the fact that each of us must grow old and die but that the process of doing so has been made unnecessarily and at times excruciatingly painful, humiliating, debilitating and isolating through insensitivity, ignorance and poverty.”

WANTED: Advocacy Group to Help Older Workers

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The Time For Action is Long Overdue

What advocacy group exists today to fight age discrimination in the workplace?

My first thought was the AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, which has an estimated 37 million members. The AARP is said to be one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the United States. But it is in the business of selling health insurance to retired people, not equality in the workplace.

The AARP has a non-profit foundation that exists to advocate for older Americans. It says it helps “struggling seniors by being a force for change on the most serious issues they face today.” The web site of the AARP Foundation has lots of opportunities to “donate today” and “ways to give.” It claims to be “a voice and an advocate.” Here are the articles under “AARP Foundation in the News”  on Oct. 6, 2014:

  • How to manage your money better after 50.
  • The people of Haiti thank AARP members.
  • AARP Foundation invites NASCAR fans to ‘Ride with Jeff.”
  • Couples say relationships benefit from volunteering together..

Considering the serious issues facing older workers today, this like marshmallow fluff on burnt toast.  Efforts to reach Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson and other Foundation officials through their web site were unsuccessful.

Who Cares?

Who advocates for older workers who are unemployed, floundering in long-term unemployment, and working in poorly-paid part-time jobs with no benefits? Research shows that millions of older workers have been forced into a penurious early retirement since the Great Recession because they can’t get jobs.  This hasn’t stopped Congress from debating cuts to Social Security. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has virtually ignored a record increase in age discrimination complaints. Despite receiving more than 20,000 complaints in 2013, the EEOC filed only a handful of lawsuits with age discrimination claims.

The thesis of my new book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, is that the major U.S. law prohibiting age discrimination was weak to begin with and has been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court. There is no question that older workers are literally treated like second class citizens in our nation’s court system. Who cares?

The AARP Foundation has a legal arm that files friend of the court briefs and purportedly represents plaintiffs in age discrimination lawsuits.  However, the problems facing older workers will not be resolved in the federal courts, which are demonstrably hostile to all employment discrimination lawsuits.

Older Americans must demand their representatives in the U.S. Congress address the epidemic of age discrimination.  For five years, Congress has failed even to pass the Protection Older Workers Against Discrimination Act, which would merely restore parity between the ADEA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin and religion. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2009 issued a mean-spirited and unnecessary decision requiring  older workers to meet a much higher level of proof in age discrimination cases than exists for discrimination victims who file claims under Title VII.  No one has put forth any credible justification for treating age discrimination victims worse than other discrimination victims. The failure of Congress to address this harmful injustice also reflects the lack of an effective advocacy groups for older workers.

One would have hoped that our nation’s first African-American president, Barack H. Obama, would show some sensitivity to the problem of age discrimination. He made the problem incrementally worse when he signed an executive order in 2010 that permits government agencies to bypass older workers in favor of hiring younger workers. The justification for this program is that the government was incapable of competing with the private sector for younger workers during the worst recession in 100 years.  Really?

What American workers need  now is an advocacy group that will pound the pavement in the U.S. Congress to restore their rights.  We need an organization that has a strategy and a plan to create positive change.  If the AARP Foundation wants to continue to collect money to advocate for the rights of older workers, individuals and grant organizations should demand  action on Capital Hill.  If this is too uncomfortable for the offspring of a behemoth medical sales organization, then we need a new organization that is willing to do the job.