Jack Gross “never, never imagined” that he would be demoted after 13 straight years of top performance reviews, file an age discrimination lawsuit and end up in the U.S. Supreme Court. But it happened to Jack, and it could happen to your friend, family member, neighbor or coworker — or even to you.
Jack is an Iowan with an all-American story — married his high school sweetheart; has a granddaughter born on the Fourth of July; at midlife bought his dream car, a 1962 Thunderbird. Then at age 54, after his employer merged with another outfit, Jack and every employee over 50 in a similar position was either offered a buyout or got demoted. Jack fought to win back the director title he had earned through his years of hard work and won an age discrimination suit on the merits. But when his case was appealed all the way to the top, the court changed the ground rules on how to prove age discrimination. It required a higher standard of proof of age discrimination than that required in race, religion or gender workplace discrimination cases, making it easier to discriminate against older workers.
AARP believes it’s time to restore the same civil rights protections for older workers as those afforded to other groups. That’s why we are backing bipartisan legislation that would restore and reaffirm long-standing legal standards, the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA) (S.1391 and H.R. 2852).
Here’s another compelling story. Jessie James Williams was fired from his job after 31 years. He grew up in a small town in Arkansas where he drank from water fountains marked “colored,” but racial discrimination is not why he lost his job around age 60 after three decades of service. “You got too old. You got to go,” Williams said his supervisor told him.
Strong civil rights protections for older workers take on even more importance when you consider the statistics for older job seekers in this economy. After losing jobs, many older workers remain unemployed so long that they become discouraged enough to leave the workforce, forced into early retirement. As of January 2014, job seekers age 55 and older were unemployed for about 44 weeks on average, about three months longer than their younger counterparts, according to AARP. And when older workers do land a new job, it’s often for less money.
Jan and Michael are living through that. Jan was a highly successful marketing executive who had the misfortune to be laid off before she was 50. She left with great recommendations and confidence in her employability. But as time went on, and the rejections piled up, she realized that potential employers were wrongly holding her age against her. She widened her geographic range, and later tried to find a retail job, then one as a store clerk. They all turned her down. She was not ashamed, Jan explained to her embarrassed daughter, she was angry. “I had done everything I was supposed to do,” Jan says. “I had gone to college, then to grad school. I worked very hard and I had a lot of success. Then I got thrown away.”
Her husband, Michael, earned six figures as an equipment salesman for 20 years, but was unemployed at 62; he couldn’t even get a job interview. So now he works at Starbucks. It’s work he enjoys, but it pays less than $10 an hour — a far cry from what he was making. He hasn’t given up hope of finding another well-paying job, but he knows the odds are not good. “It’s kind of like the baseball player who hits his late 30s and realizes he’s just not wanted anymore,” Michael said.
Age discrimination in employment is a serious problem, harming hard-working individuals and their families and stealing their hopes for the future. An AARP study shows that nearly 2 in 3 (64 percent) of 50-plus workers (or those looking for a job) say they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace.
Of registered voters 50 and older surveyed by AARP in June 2012, 84 percent agreed that Congress needs to do more to protect older workers from age discrimination and to ensure that people over 50 continue to have an equal opportunity to work for as long as they want or need to — regardless of their age. Nearly 8 in 10 support passage of POWADA.
AARP agrees. We hope you will join in our fight to combat bias against older workers. Please call your elected representatives — or make your voice heard — and tell them to protect older workers against age discrimination by cosponsoring and passing this common-sense, bipartisan legislation without delay.