Sometimes my family and I tease my 57-year-old father about his age. We have been known to lovingly comment on his graying hair, offer to help him cross the street, or ask him about his AARP membership. He usually laughs at these jabs and reminds us that we will be his age one day. While these types of playful remarks may seem innocent enough, they could be considered age discrimination if they were made in a different setting, or taken out of context.
Age discrimination affects individuals of all ages, but it is most prevalent among senior-citizens. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines age discrimination as treating someone (an applicant or employee) less favorably because of his or her age. Age discrimination, which often occurs in the work place, has recently become a widespread issue. Due to the weakened economy, many seniors are forced to either remain employed longer or return to the workforce just to make ends meet. According to the Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Aging (AoA), about 6.5 million Americans age 65 and over were in the labor force in 2009. These working seniors constitute approximately 4.2 percent of the U.S. labor force, including about 3.6 million men and 2.9 million women.
The problem of age discrimination in the work place usually arises when there is a troubled economy, because older workers typically bear the brunt of massive layoffs and workforce reductions. If the seniors who lost their jobs in an economic downturn are not able to retire, then they may be faced with hiring policies that discriminate based on age when they try to reenter the workforce. According to AARP, the number of unemployed workers age 55 years and older has increased by 330 percent over the last 10 years. This means that many older workers are now searching for jobs in a cutthroat market that often favors younger employees.
The EEOC claims there has been a 17 percent increase in the number of age-discrimination complaints filed since the economic downturn began in 2007. Despite this increase, age discrimination continues to go unreported because there is a lack of awareness about the law. Additionally, many older workers are more likely to forego a potential age discrimination claim to focus their efforts on finding a job. Before dismissing the option of filing a claim, it is beneficial to understand the types of age discrimination and the laws designed to protect against them.
Age discrimination may occur in the work place as a result of discriminatory employment policies, practices or harassment. It is unlawful to harass a person based on his or her age. Making offhanded remarks about a person’s age might seem like simple teasing, but it could be considered harassment if it occurs so frequently or is so severe that it creates a hostile work environment, or results in an adverse employment decision. The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another department, a co-worker, or even a customer. According to the EEOC, an employment policy or practice that applies to everyone, regardless of age, can be illegal if it has a negative impact on applicants or employees age 40 or older and is not based on a reasonable factor other than age.
There are many state and federal laws that prohibit age discrimination. Some of the most important laws that relate to age discrimination on the federal level are the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). These laws, combined with many state laws, make it illegal to discriminate based on age or disability.