Who Owns the Problem of Age Discrimination?

Part of the problem of age discrimination in the workplace is that nobody seems to claim ownership of it.

Folks who have already retired are very interested in the issue but it doesn’t affect them directly anymore, except to the extent that it contributes to health issues and poverty in retirement.

Younger workers don’t seem to comprehend that they are the ones who are most directly affected by age discrimination in the workplace. Of course, they are scrambling to survive and raise families in this precarious pro-business economy where workers generally have few rights.  In my new book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, I show that the problem of age discrimination is so prevalent in America today that it has become the new normal and is even affecting workers in their 30s. To some extent, lack of awareness is in the nature of youth.  As Aristotle said, “Youth is easily deceived, because it is quick to hope.”

The upcoming White House Conference on Aging has not shown any indication that it will address the epidemic of age discrimination in the workplace, a problem made incrementally worse in 2010 when President Barack Obama signed an executive order allowing federal agencies to discriminate against older workers and hire “recent graduates.”  The Conference issues page  identifies the following themes: healthy aging, long term services and supports, and elder justice (abuse and neglect).  Age discrimination  in employment is no-where mentioned.

My book  documents the inferior treatment accorded under the law to victims of age discrimination in employment. I show that the major federal law that prohibits age discrimination, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, was weak and riddled with loopholes when it was passed by Congress in 1967 and has been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Today, there are virtually no consequences for employers who engage in blatant age discrimination and many incentives to do so (e.g., cost-savings, youthful image).

Why have older workers have been second class citizens  under the law for fifty years? The AARP, which earned $1.34 billion last year selling insurance and travel products to older Americans, claims to be a champion of the rights of older Americans.  Is the AARP really so powerless that it cannot insure that older workers at least have the same protections and rights as other Americans?

The most recent major assault on the ADEA occurred in 2009 when the U.S. Supreme Court in Gross v. FBL Financial Services established a higher standard of proof in ADEA cases than exists under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion and national origin.  That year, a handful of progressive legislators proposed the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act, which would legislatively “fix” the Gross decision. The POWADA has never made it out of committee.

Contact the White House Conference on Aging and urge conference director Nora Super to address the problem of age discrimination in the workplace. The conference email address is info@whaging.gov

AARP: What’s Wrong with this Picture?

Well, I finally heard from the AARP.

Readers may recall that I attempted numerous times without success in September 2014  to contact the leadership of the for-profit AARP and its non-profit advocacy arm, the AARP Foundation, about my new book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace.   The book exposes the failure of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 to protect older workers during and since the Great Recession and documents the suffering of older workers who are forced by epidemic age discrimination into a penurious early retirement.

I got no response from the AARP.  Meanwhile, I wrote articles for the International Federation on Aging and the American Society on Aging (forthcoming) on the connection between age discrimination and problems in retirement.

I was baffled by the  complete silence from AARP leaders – not even a “thank you but get lost.” Like most Americans, I thought the AARP was the nation’s leading advocacy group for older Americans. I wrote an article for this blog on Oct. 6  about the fund-raising emphasis and inane issues listed on the AARP Foundation’s web site – “AARP Foundation invites NASCAR fans to ‘Ride with Jeff” and  “Couples say relationships benefit from volunteering together.”  A few days later, I wrote another article about how other countries advocate for equal rights for older workers.

On Nov. 4, out of the blue, I received an email from Lisa Ryerson, the head of the AARP Foundation, who invited me to contact her.  In a reply email, I asked if she would agree to set up an appointment to discuss the problem of age discrimination.  She forwarded my request to Stuart Cohen, the head of the AARP Foundation’s legal team, who in turn forwarded my request to two other AARP officials, who were nice enough to talk to me for an hour last month.

In our discussion, I outlined my proposed short-term and long-term strategy for addressing the problem of age discrimination, starting with a focus on the passage of the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA) and listing age discrimination as an issue to be addressed at the upcoming  White House Conference on Aging.

The POWADA, which has languished in Congress for five long years, would reverse at least some of the damage inflicted on older workers by a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, Gross v. FBL Financial Services.  That decision raised the level of proof in age discrimination cases far above that for race or sex discrimination cases.  Older workers  today are literally second class citizens in our nation’s court system, which is completely contrary to basic American concepts of fairness and equal justice under the law.

Meanwhile, age discrimination is so pervasive that it is trickling down to workers in their 30s and 40s who are by any other standard young.  Even the federal government has gotten into the act. President Barack Obama in 2010 signed an executive order establishing the Pathways “Recent Graduates” Program  which allows federal agencies to  bypass older workers and hire  young workers.  How can we expect private employers to obey the law when the federal government doesn’t?

In our discussion, I  equated the failure to pass the POWADA to the “Broken Window” theory, which holds that a broken window in a neighborhood is an invitation to thieves because it shows the neighborhood is overlooked and neglected. If older Americans can’t expect equal rights in the courts, how can they expect equal rights elsewhere?

One of the AARP officials sent me an email a few days later thanking me for my interest but stating that the AARP was already doing some of the things on my list. Whatever that means?

The AARP takes credit every year that Congress fails to cut Social Security. The AARP Foundation monitors Congress and the legal team files amicus or friend of the court briefs in U.S. Supreme Court cases and represents a select few individual s in lawsuits involving age discriminaton. But that obviously is not enough.  If it were, the POWADA would be law.

The POWADA hasn’t even made it out of committee for five years.  The failure to pass the POWADA reflects astounding ignorance and inexcusable neglect. No one  has come forward to oppose the POWADA because that would be like opposing equal rights for older Americans. The immediate passage of the POWADA is the absolute minimum that older workers should expect.  Even that will not improve the situation significantly because the ADEA is still hopelessly flawed. Older workers  are denied the same level of protection that is provided under Title VII. I have advocated scrapping the ADEA and making age a protected class under Title VII.

Hoovers estimates the value of the AARP, Inc., which sells medical insurance and travel products to an estimated 37 million members, to be more than $1.34 billion.  Shouldn’t older Americans be getting more bang from their bucks. What’s wrong with this picture?