EEOC Acting Chair says it’s time for “thorough Review” of Age Discrimination in Employment Act

EEOC Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic said Thursday the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 – which turns 50 Friday – “deserves a thorough review to insure it is meeting the needs of today’s workforce.”

In addition, she said, “We need a cultural awakening. Instead of  negative expectations, how about recognizing the positives? Age diverse teams and cross-generational mentoring produce real benefits for both workers and employers.”

“Utilizing the talent of everyone, regardless of age, is good business. This is talent that our economy cannot afford to waste. . .” – Lipnic

Lipnic was not specific about why she believes the ADEA deserves a thorough review; how the ADEA may be failing to meet the needs of today’s workforce; and whether the ADEA will indeed get the thorough review that it deserves.

Lipnic focused on what she characterized as the ADEA’s success. She noted the ADEA was adopted in 1967 when “age discrimination was blatant. Workers over age 45 were barred from many jobs based solely on their age and mandatory retirement was commonplace for those in their 60s. Since then the ADEA has largely stopped openly discriminatory practices. But age discrimination is still too common and often accepted.” She said older workers continue to confront negative stereotypes and that age discrimination deprives them of their dignity and financial security.

But is the ADEA a success?

Others would point to evidence that age discrimination remains blatant, epidemic and unaddressed 50 years after the ADEA’s adoption.

Older workers are (and have been for years) significantly underrepresented in the high-tech industry while Silicon Valley employers unabashedly word job advertisements to discourage older applicants. Some, for example, advertise to hire “digital natives” or specify a maximum number of years of experience.

The U.S. government is openly engaged in blatant age discrimination in hiring through the Pathways Recent Graduates program, which since 2012 has barred older workers from applying for almost 100,000 jobs.  When former President  Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2010 establishing the program, he sent a message to private sector employers that age discrimination was reasonable, necessary and would be overlooked. And it was overlooked.

The ADEA’s 50-year-old mandatory retirement provision still exists for a large swath of workers, including public safety workers who are forced to retire with fat pensions and then go on to perform the same work in private industry. Some also might argue that while formal “mandatory retirement” rules are largely gone, older workers are effectively pushed out of the workforce by age discrimination. Older workers disproportionately languish in long-term unemployment and end up in temp, part-time or low wage work. Many are forced to retire as soon as they become eligible for Social Security, which results in lower Social Security benefits for the rest of their lives. Research shows that older women suffer the highest rate of age discrimination in hiring.

Lipnic did not address criticism that the EEOC failed to aggressively enforce the ADEA during and since the Great Recession, has ignored blatant age discrimination in hiring by Silicon Valley and the federal government,  and itself discriminates against older workers in administrative decision-makings and in hiring.

Finally, Lipnic said the basic purpose of the ADEA is that “ability matters, not age.” However, that’s not what President Lyndon B. Johnson said after he signed the ADEA into law. Johnson said:

The ADEA “does require that one simple question be answered fairly:  Who has the best qualifications for the job?”

There’s a big difference between “ability” and “qualifications.”  Society traditionally had judged  ability by qualifications.  However, the EEOC issued at least two decisions this year in which objective qualifications were ignored and hiring decisions were based upon subjective criteria like poise and cultural fit. In one case, the EEOC ruled a middle-aged male hiring officer for the Social Security Administration did not engage in age discrimination when he refused to hire a 60-year-old women who did not fall within his perception of “cultural fit.”  Instead, the hiring officer selected five applicants under the age of 40, including many recent graduates.

In my groundbreaking 2014 book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, I note the ADEA is far weaker than Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, color and national origin. I note that a broad swatch of discrimination that is illegal under Title VII is perfectly legal under the ADEA. Since its adoption, the ADEA has been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court which, among other things, ruled in 2009 that ADEA plaintiffs must show a much higher standard of causation than Title VII plaintiffs. In addition, the ADEA does a poor job of deterring age discrimination because it sharply limits the amount of damages that an ADEA plaintiff can recover. Unlike Title VII, the ADEA does not permit plaintiffs to seek compensatory damages for emotional distress or punitive damages.

 

Senate Aging Committee Pledges to Fight Age Discrimination in Employment

At a hearing on Wednesday, leaders of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging vowed to “fix” a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision that makes it very difficult for older workers to fight age discrimination in federal court.

Committee Chairperson Susan Collins, R-ME, and Ranking Leader Bob Casey, D-PA,  also acknowledged the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), which was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on December 15, 1967.

Collins and Casey addressed the Supreme Court’s catastrophic 2009 decision, in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, which raised the burden of proof in ADEA cases far above that of race or sex discrimination cases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Since Gross, older workers have been required prove that age discrimination was not just a motivating factor but the decisive factor in an adverse employment action. The Gross decision legalized a broad swath of  discrimination that is illegal under Title VII and sent a signal to employers that age discrimination will be tolerated.

 “For the life of me,” said Collins, “I don’t understand why there is a higher burden for proving that age discrimination was the reason for the adverse employment action … compared to gender, religion, race.”

The legislators expressed strong support for a bill they are sponsoring, the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA), which would essentially restore the status quo with respect to the plaintiff’s evidentiary burden prior to the Gross decision. The bill  has been introduced several times since 2009 but has never made it out of committee to a vote. Sen. Casey, who worked on age discrimination cases as an attorney, said it was always hard for workers to fight back against insidious age discrimination but that it is even harder today “because the Supreme Court weakened the ADEA and we’ve got to fix that.”

A witness at the hearing, Laurie McCann, a senior attorney for the AARP, urged the Committee to hold a series of hearings to learn what changes are needed to update and strengthen the ADEA to adequately protect older workers. “The AARP believes that it is well past time to update and strengthen the ADEA so that it can respond to the challenges facing today’s older workers in today’s workplace,” she said.

As I demonstrated in my 2013 book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, the ADEA was far weaker than Title VII when it was adopted 50 years ago and it has since been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court.  In the book, I proposed repealing the ADEA and making age a protected class under Title VII, as was originally proposed when the passage of Title VII was being debated by Congress.

According to McCann, three in ten near-retiree-age (55-64) households have no retirement savings at all and the median retirement savings of all near-retiree households was only $14,500 in 2013. McCann said financial need is by far the most important reason that workers aged 45-74 work. She blamed age discrimination on persistent negative stereotypes and discriminatory employer recruitment practices, including advertising for “digital natives,” specifying a maximum number of years of experience or limiting recruitment to entry-level positions on college campuses.

Financial need is by far the most important reason that workers aged 45-74 work – AARP.

The committee also issued a report on Wednesday examining the nation’s aging workforce, “America’s Aging Workforce: Opportunities and Challenges.”  The report states the number of Americans over age 55 in the labor force is projected to increase from 35.7 million in 2016 to 42.1 million in 2026, and, by 2026, aging workers will make up nearly one quarter of the labor force.  The business case for hiring, retaining, and supporting older workers is strong, according to the report, but challenges exist – including age discrimination, inadequate training opportunities, working while managing health conditions and disabilities, balancing caregiving responsibilities with work, and preparing financially for retirement.

Collins said U.S. employers are going to need older workers in the years ahead and can’t afford to “discard skills and experience that older workers bring to workplace.”

Another witness, Lisa Motta, 54, from Pittsburgh, Pa., testified about re-entering the workforce in her 50s  after having lost her sight. A former teacher, she now works as a recruiting administrator at PNC Bank. “As America’s workforce grows older, more and more workers will face challenges like these and will need additional supports and accommodations,” Motta said. “They will also need laws in place that ensure that when they walk into an interview they do not face any form of discrimination. When we make it easier for these workers to succeed, everyone benefits.”

Prior to Wednesday’s hearing, the Senate aging committee was criticized for failing to act in the face of the epidemic of age discrimination in the workplace that occurred during and since the Great Recession.

Absent from Wednesday’s hearing was a representative from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which has ignored a major spike in age discrimination complaints dsince 2008 and rampant age discrimination in the federal government, and has issued administrative decisions that reflect a higher standard in age discrimination cases than in race or sex discrimination case.

Feds Are Engaged in Age Discrimination in Hiring on Unprecedented Scale

About 93% of applicants hired for 92,193 federal jobs under the U.S. government’s Pathways “Recent Graduates” Program  from May 2012 to July 2017  were under the age of 40.

Only  7.16% of applicants hired under the program were over the age of 40, according to statistics released by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) pursuant to a Freedom of Information request.

The data shows the federal government is engaged in a practice of age discrimination in hiring that dwarfs anything in the private sector and is unprecedented since the enactment fifty years ago of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967.

The OPM released the data on Nov. 28 pursuant to a FOI request filed by a job seeker who was rejected for a federal job because he was not a recent college graduate. Given that publicity about workers who demand their legal rights often makes them a pariah to potential employers, the job seeker’s identity is not disclosed here.

The federal government is engaged in a pattern of age discrimination in hiring that is unprecedented in modern history.

Barack H. Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, created the Pathways “Recent Graduates” Program through an  executive order in 2010. Obama’s executive order operates as an exemption to the ADEA for federal agencies. The OPM issued regulations and the program began operating in May 2012.

The ADEA prohibits the consideration of age in hiring except in limited circumstances such as when it involves a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the par­ticu­lar business or where the differentiation is based on reasonable factors other than age (i.e,  cost). These were not considerations with respect to the Pathways program.

The OPM at the time disingenuously implied the hiring program did not involve age discrimination because anyone of any age can be a recent graduate.  Of course, the vast majority of recent graduates are and always have been under the age of 40.

The Pathways program  is form of age discrimination under the “disparate impact” theory, which is invoked when a seemingly neutral policy results in a disproportionate negative impact on a protected class.

The U.S. Congress passed the ADEA 50 years ago to protect individuals aged 40 and older from irrational and harmful employment discrimination.  In signing the order, then President Lyndon B. Johnson said the ADEA’s purpose was to insure the most qualified applicant got the job.

Obama signed the order in the wake of Wall Street’s collapse and the Great Recession, when older workers were disproportionately mired in long-term unemployment.

A spokesperson for the OPM said in July that the program doesn’t discriminate because it is legal and the program will continue until Obama’s executive order is rescinded by the sitting President.

Unique Perspective of  Young People

Without offering any supporting data, Obama said the order was needed to remove “barriers” in hiring younger workers caused by civil service regulations and “to achieve a workforce that represents all segments of society.” Obama also said he wanted  to “infuse” the federal government with the “enthusiasm, talents and unique perspective” of young people.

In an Oct. 4, 2011 letter to the OPM, Angela Bailey, a spokesperson for the National Treasury Employees Union, said there can be “no doubt” the Pathways program targeted younger applicants ” by design.” Furthermore, she said, the program was “intended to, and will, discriminate against older applicants” in violation of the ADEA and merit selection principles. She denied the government faced barriers to hiring young people and questioned the government’s competency with respect to recruitment. She said the absence of a cap on hiring under the program was the “single most disappointing aspect” of the program.

The OPM’s Merit System and Accountability Office released incomplete age data from Pathways program last summer that only covered hiring between May 2012 through June 2014. The OPM claimed, falsely, that it lacked more recent figures.  The persistent FOIA applicant filed an appeal and requested  the later statistics.

OPM General Counsel Theodore M. Cooperstein writes that his office “determined that OPM does have additional responsive data regarding Pathways Programs appointees” after 2014.

The federal government is the nation’s largest employer.

Under President Obama’s directive, “A Recent Graduate is an individual who obtained a qualifying associates, bachelors, master’s, professional, doctorate, vocational or technical degree or certificate from a qualifying educational institution,within the previous 2 years …”  5 CFR 362.302(a),

Is “Poise” a Qualification or a Subjective Assessment Prone to Bias?

Qualifications normally are an  important consideration in discrimination cases.

In recent weeks, however, the EEOC has ruled in two age discrimination cases that subjective assessments  outweigh objective qualifications.

In both cases, Carlton M. Hadden, Jr. director of the EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations, held that federal agencies did not engage in age discrimination when they ignored the superior qualifications of older applicants and hired younger, seemingly far less qualified workers. The EEOC, which has declined to comment, upheld both decisions.

In one of the cases, Hadden ruled that an African-American female in her 20s was more qualified for the position of lead police officer at a veteran’s center in Dallas than a 48-year-old white male who was then serving as lead police detective at the center.  The male had 20 years of high-level experience in policing; the female had served a stint in the Army military police.

Hadden said the female candidate “arguably has more experience in the intangible areas sought by the (hiring panel), such as poise, compassion, leadership, and the ability to cope with stress…” But are “poise” and “compassion” really “qualifications” or are they subjective assessments that are subject to cultural bias? And why doesn’t an officer who is in a leadership position show more leadership potential than an individual who is not? These decisions raise questions about whether the EEOC is implementing its own vision of affirmative action rather than federal law.

In the past, courts have looked skeptically at subjective assessments in hiring  because research shows that hiring managers often harbor subconscious bias.

An older candidate may not seem poised if members of the hiring panel harbor bias that older people are ugly, sickly or lacking in enthusiasm.

The issue is important because today there is rarely direct evidence of  discrimination. Plaintiffs must show that the employer’s non-discriminatory explanation for a negative employment action was a pretext for discrimination.  It’s hard to disprove an employer who says the other candidate had more poise and compassion.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 discussed how courts should assess  “plainly superior qualifications”  in the  case of  Ash, et al. v. Tyson Foods, Inc. The U.S. Supreme Court clearly was not talking about  the employer’s subjective assessment of the candidates – that’s what the Court was concerned about.

In the Ash case, the plaintiffs, two African-Americans, argued that Tyson used job qualifications that were not required by company policy to exclude them and justify promoting two white males. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta dismissed their complaint, ruling they had ailed to raise an inference of discrimination.

The 11th Circuit ruled that a plaintiff must show the disparity in qualifications was “so apparent as virtually to jump off the page and slap you in the face.”  The Supreme Court rejected this standard, calling it “”unhelpful” and “ambiguous.”

In the Ash decision, the U.S. Supreme Court referred approvingly to far less stringent standards than the one articulated by the 11th Circuit. The Court noted a federal appeals court in California ruled  that a pretext of discrimination can be found where a candidate was not hired despite  “clearly”superior qualifications.” The Court cited a ruling by a federal appeals court in the District of Columbia that a fact-finder might infer pretext if a “reasonable employer would have found the plaintiff to be significantly better qualified for the job.”

Hadden did not cite any legal authority to justify equating subjective assessments with objective qualifications. The EEOC has declined to comment.

The EEOC routinely rejects subjective assessments in race and sex discrimination cases. Why is there a different standard for age discrimination?

The other age discrimination case dismissed by the EEOC in August condoned hiring workers based on “cultural fit.” This concept is so widely regarded as an invitation for bias that it is now considered taboo even in the business community.

The bottom line is that the EEOC is locked in a time warp, despite the fact that it was designated by Congress to implement the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and should be in the forefront on the issue of equal rights. And, since EEOC cases are secret, we have no way of knowing how many older workers have had their cases dismissed on the basis of reasoning that follows no legal precedent and appears to be the equivalent of a whim.