Double Standard for Older Workers

It is much more difficult for older workers to prevail in federal discrimination lawsuits than for victims of race, sex, national origin, color and religion.

But why?

As Shakespeare said: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA),  29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq., makes it  “unlawful for an employer . . . to discharge any individual . . . because of such individual’s age. Id. at § 623(a).”  The ADEA covers employees who are age 40 and older.

To prevail on an ADEA claim, however, the U.S. Supreme Court says a plaintiff must establish that “that age was the ‘but-for’ cause of the employer’s adverse action.” Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 129 S.Ct. 2343, 2351 (2009).

In other words, the ADEA plaintiff must show that but for age discrimination, the employer would not have made the adverse job decision (i.e. demotion or dismissal)..

This is a far higher standard than required in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which covers discrimination on the basis of sex, national origin, color and religion.

In Title VII lawsuits, it is sufficient for the plaintiff to show that discrimination was a “motivating factor” in the adverse job action. The Title VII plaintiff is not required to show that age was the determining factor.

Once the Title VII plaintiff shows that the employer’s motivation included unlawful discrimination, the burden of persuasion shifts to the employer to prove that it would have taken the same employment action for a legitimate reason in the absence of discrimination.

The burden does not ever shift from the plaintiff to the employer in an ADEA case.

There has been discussion – but no action – in the U.S. Congress to adopt new legislation to establish the same causation theory for the ADEA that exists with respect to Title VII but so far nothing has happened except that older workers continue to lose lawsuits where they have shown they were victims of gross age discrimination.

By holding ADEA plaintiffs to a much higher standard than other discrimination victims, the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court seem to be saying that  age discrimination is somehow less harmful than other types of discrimination. But where is the evidence for that?

Age discrimination is possibly more insidious today than it has been at any other time in history.  When older workers lose their job today, they may never find another job, let alone another job that is comparable to the one they lost. Many hurtle toward their retirement years unprepared, without sufficient funds or even health insurance.

According to a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust, more than 42 percent of unemployed workers older than 55 had been out of work for at least a year in the fourth quarter of 2011 — the highest percentage of any age category. Only 21 percent of people under 25 are long-term unemployed. That number rises to 29 percent for ages 25-34; 36 percent for ages 35-44; and 39 percent for ages 45-54.

It’s no picnic for many older workers who remain employed either. They may be “stuck” in bad jobs. Employers know that older workers will find it difficult – if not impossible – to prevail in age discrimination lawsuits. And they know that older workers can’t afford to quit and face the risk of chronic unemployment.   This situation does not provide any incentive for employers to treat older workers with respect and dignity.

Not surprisingly, the number of age discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has more than doubled in the past decade, to a total of 23,465 in 2011.

The real tragedy in all of this is the sense that many older workers –  who have spent a lifetime paying taxes and being good citizens — are denied equal protection by the very democratic institutions that are charged with  insuring equal protection for all.

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