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Were Layoffs Targeted or Just Good Business?

Employees downsized from a tech firm claim age bias led to their dismissals.

For nearly 13 years, David Olson, 59, worked as an engineer at Seagate Technology, a California-based computer hard drive manufacturer. He'd managed an engineering group, led technical teams and, with colleagues, had a patent pending. The last thing he expected was to be laid off.

"My performance reviews were good and I had made many contributions to Seagate," he said. But in 2004, he and 500 others lost their jobs. His next surprise was the pattern of layoffs: He noticed that a disproportionate share were workers over 50. That violated the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), he concluded, and he filed an age discrimination suit.

Beth Bertelson, an attorney for Olson and 63 other ex-employees, said, "The workers we’re representing were highly talented with strong track records." They are seeking compensation for wages and benefits lost since the 2004 layoffs.

In the lawsuit, Bertelson and co-counsel, along with AARP Foundation lawyers, argued that Seagate pursued several improper practices. One was pressuring older workers to retire and firing older workers who refused. Another was transferring duties and jobs from older workers to younger replacements or hiring younger workers shortly before and after firing older workers.

Olson found work a year later, but his new firm, a start-up in California, laid him off last December. He continues to look for work. Seagate has continued to struggle, announcing another round of budget cuts last month. "Everyone loses with age-based layoffs," said AARP Foundation attorney Daniel Kohrman. "Due to stereotypes about older workers, a strong contributor is cast aside. He or she typically finds a lesser job, may have to cash in retirement funds and may lose health coverage. The company is worse off, too. In the end, it needs experienced staff."

Seagate attorneys denied the firm acted improperly, but preliminary rulings last year favored the ex-workers. A full trial is expected.

What it means to you: Know your rights. Check with union representatives if your company is unionized, and check websites such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or workplacefairness.org.

Emily Sachar is a journalist and author based in Brooklyn, N.Y. … Back to Article

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