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Older Workers: The 'New Unemployables'

Age bias taking a big toll on job seekers over 55

Workers 55 and over have been especially hard hit in the economic downturn. Older workers not only are enduring record-high levels of unemployment, but also stay jobless longer than others, according to the Labor Department.

Now a new report has dubbed them the "New Unemployables" (PDF).

To document the trend, researchers followed jobless workers starting in August 2009, surveying and interviewing them at intervals.

The report by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College and the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University concluded that "those 55+ may be suffering from age discrimination and employer biases." Those in their late 40s and early 50s also cited age as the reason for their continued unemployment.

Now the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is weighing age discrimination as a factor in the impact of the down economy on older workers. The commission heard Wednesday from labor and legal experts, AARP, the Society for Human Resource Management, and one ordinary citizen, Jessie James Williams, 64, who stole the show with his personal story of racial and age discrimination.

He "got too old"

Jacqueline A. Berrien, EEOC chair, asked Williams about the racial discrimination he faced as a young man in Arkansas compared with the age discrimination in Las Vegas, when he lost his job after 31 years and was told he "got too old."

Williams said he had gotten used to racial injustice. The age discrimination bothered him more.

Unemployment among workers 55 and over is at its highest level since the Labor Department began collecting data in 1948, William E. Spriggs, assistant secretary for policy at the Labor Department, told the EEOC.

The unemployment rate for older workers was 7.3 percent in August, he noted, up from just 3 percent in prerecession November 2007.

While 7.3 percent is lower than the overall jobless rate of 9.6 percent, older people spend longer searching for work. Workers 55 and older were unemployed on average 44.6 weeks, far more than any other age group, Spriggs said.

The outlook last month was particularly disheartening for older men. The unemployment rate for those age 55 and up grew from 7.9 percent in September to 8.3 percent in October.

Why younger and older workers lose jobs

The Labor Department tracks displaced workers who have worked at least three years for the same employer and lose their jobs. Younger workers most often become jobless when the company closes or jobs move; older workers lose their jobs because their positions or shifts are eliminated.

While the Labor Department doesn't have data on why this difference exists, the combination of factors "raises the specter that it's possible there's discrimination," Spriggs said.

Mary Anne Sedey, a lawyer who specializes in employment cases in St. Louis, urged the EEOC to investigate hiring practices. She said 10 or 15 years ago her jobless clients in their 50s and 60s typically found new jobs after a serious job search. The new job might have been at a lower level, but the workers found jobs.

"That's simply not true anymore," she said. Even people with strong credentials spend a year or more applying for hundreds of jobs and never get a single interview. Few people know enough about employers' internal hiring processes to charge hiring discrimination, she said.

Under the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act, persons over 40 are protected from discrimination in hiring, firing, layoffs, promotions and pay. The ADEA covers employers with 20 or more employees, including state and local governments.

Age bias cases at all-time high

The number of EEOC age discrimination charges related to dismissal hit an all-time high in 2008 but dropped slightly in 2009. Few age-related discrimination charges in hiring are filed at the EEOC or in court, Sedey said. It's generally easier to prove age-related discrimination in dismissal-related cases than in hiring-related cases.

Deborah Russell, director of workforce issues for AARP, said, "Our members tell us that age discrimination is definitely a factor in their difficulties finding a new job." To try to help, AARP sponsored 40 career fairs in 19 states with the highest unemployment rates for older workers, she said.

Finding new jobs is especially important for older workers, she said. "In addition to job loss, the stock market crash and the bursting of the housing bubble inflicted a double whammy on older workers' retirement savings and housing wealth.

"The bottom line is that … many older workers will have no choice but to work longer, since they won't have the financial ability to retire."

Marsha Mercer, an independent journalist, writes from Washington, D.C.

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