When Jessie James Williams, 64, was growing up in a small town in Arkansas, water fountains said "white only." In restaurants, he had to go to the back.
He headed to Las Vegas for a fresh start and got a job with a little company picking up garbage. Over 31 years, Las Vegas and the company grew, and Williams' job became his career. He worked 15- and 18-hour days, sometimes six days a week. He learned how to use the computer dispatching system — and what it means to multitask. He advanced to head foreman, won company awards and got a bonus.
"We put our life into it," he said. "You feel like that's your job; that's your home. We know the trash. We know the trucks," he told EEOC commissioners.
Then, one day, he was let go, thrown out like the garbage.
" 'You got too old. You got to go,' " Williams said his supervisor told him. "That's devastation. I couldn't see how he could have the heart to do it."
Asked about the racial discrimination he faced in Arkansas compared with the age discrimination in Las Vegas, Williams told EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien that he had gotten used to racial injustice. The age discrimination bothered him more.
Between 2003 and 2005, Williams and about 20 others over 40 were fired. Some of the men lost their homes and their families, he said. But there's a happy ending to the story.
Lawyers for the EEOC listened to the accounts and told the workers they had rights. Government lawyers took the case and didn't let go. In September, after six years of litigation, waste collection company Republic Services paid nearly $2.9 million to Williams and the other workers to settle an age discrimination lawsuit.
"I was one of the lucky ones," Williams said.
Marsha Mercer, an independent journalist, writes from Washington, D.C.