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Two College Instructors Take on Age Discrimination

Find out how they prevailed in this "Take on Today" episode; AARP remembers Sen. John McCain and his legacy of public service

Take on Today Podcast

AARP

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INTRO:

 

Hello, I’m Bob Edwards with An AARP Take On Today.

Later in the podcast, we’ll remember Senator John McCain of Arizona.  But first:

For four years, two determined Ohio State University instructors fought the university.

They alleged age discrimination, which is illegal, but which many legal scholars say is harder to prove than other types of bias.

Attorneys from the Gittes Law Group and AARP Foundation took up the two women’s case.  And in a rare feat, they prevailed.

Now instructors Kathryn Moon and Julianne Taaffe have just returned to campus, where they have worked since 1983.

What’s more, according to the New York Times, their “settlement could prove important for the more than 5 million Americans who work for state governments and entities” – because anti-age-bias laws have applied to them for more than 40 years.

But Ohio State appears to be reluctant to raise awareness of age bias, even after reaching the settlement, which included back pay and a change in their policies.

That’s because the university announced the settlement news on the eve of a holiday weekend, a practice sometimes used to limit media coverage that may be embarrassing.

I spoke with Moon and Taaffe about their long nightmare and their rare victory.

Bob Edwards:

Now, it’s Impolite for a man to ask a woman her age, but we're dealing with age discrimination here. So, it might be relevant?

Julie Taaffe:

Well, we're used to it at this point. This is Julie, I'm 62. I'll be 63 in two weeks.

Kathy Moon:

And I'm Kathy. I'm 67.

Bob Edwards:

So how does it feel to be back at school?

Kathy Moon:

Well I'll go first. I was terrified to come back. But after working with students. I really, really remember how much fun that is.

Julie Taaffe:

At the beginning, it was pretty strange. I have to admit. Almost surreal. Because it had been three or four years and it had become so dreadful that neither one of us I think ever imagined we'd be back in this particular spot. But, over time it's gotten better and better. I find myself thinking, recently, that this is kind of a perfect job. And the people that we're working with now are night-and-day different, so it's turning out to be pretty good.

Bob Edwards:

How did things get so bad? What happened to you two?

Julie Taaffe:

There was no explanation for the way we were being treated. Except they no longer wanted a certain age image for the program. That was age discrimination.

It took a number of years, but it finally reached the point where I couldn't do it anymore. I had to leave long, long, long before I expected to. I had no intention of leaving, because I liked teaching.

Bob Edwards:

Then your supervisor called you hippos and deadwood and millstones.

Julie Taaffe:

Yes, all of that and more as a matter of fact.

Kathy Moon:

To explain it to somebody, it might be kind of clear to say that it happened on two levels. There were things that were happening to us that were dreadful. But then once we started the lawsuit and could look at documents and emails we discovered that there were things happening underneath that were even worse.

Julie Taaffe:

My reaction was... I wasn't crazy. These things were going on and it was actually a lot worse than we thought.

I think the hippo comment was just an ill… he later I think rethought his comment. But as far as the other names I think that was all a part of a plan to make us as uncomfortable as possible. And it kind of worked.

Bob Edwards:

Younger people were promoted over you?

Julie Taaffe:

Yeah. In fact, in at least one case a younger staffer was sort of pushed into a position that she clearly did not feel qualified for and expressed that repeatedly to this supervisor. She took the position and quickly regretted it and stepped down from it.

This was a different situation. We were simply ground to a halt. The older staffers weren't included in any kind of initiative. Initiatives that would only have affected one program all the way up to international programs. That's when it became just bizarre.

Younger staffers would come to us who clearly felt uncomfortable in the atmosphere. They had seen us as mentors. That's kind of what we did.

Bob Edwards:

How did you come to learn that this was not coincidental—that this was a deliberate pattern of discrimination?

Kathy Moon:

 

We started to notice the really terrible things that were happening.

Some part-time people who had been with us for 10, 12, 15 years and never had a negative word spoken about their performance were just suddenly dismissed and no longer needed. And younger workers were put in their place.

And then we noticed that all the doors on our offices were removed. We were moved from a space with cubicles with 15 feet of counter space to small areas in a suite with four feet of counter space.

A telling thing was when Julie Taaffe’s performance evaluation had been completed by an outgoing executive director. And the new director lowered her performance evaluation in several areas, so that she couldn't get a perfect score.

Julie Taaffe:

 

Once we were able to look at the emails we did figure out that it wasn't a plan to save money. It was simply that they no longer wanted this core staff of 50-plus teachers. The executive director would write to HR or to the Chair and refer to older staffers, refer to us by name, as squatting on jobs that young bucks should be getting.

Bob Edwards:

So you left.

Kathy Moon:

Well we experienced something that the lawyers explained to us called constructive firing.

We were at a point where we had no choice. Our full-time jobs were eliminated in October of 2014 and we were reclassified as lecturers or part-time workers. That meant no pay between the breaks, no job security—that is we could be hired for one semester and then not be hired after that.

Once we investigated the alternatives we had very little choice and we chose to retire.

Julie Taaffe:

And even the verb… I guess we did “choose” to retire. But at the same time, I want to say we had no choice. We had to.

Bob Edwards:

But you also fought to be reinstated. Why was that important to you?

Julie Taaffe:

What I wanted was for someone to pay attention.

Bob Edwards:

You got reinstated. Got your back pay. But I understand that you would not go back unless the university also changed its policies.

Julie Taaffe:

 

That was the dominant thing for me. Why would we want to come back to a place that will continue behaving the way it has been?

And our lawyers, we did have AARP on our side, and the lawyers for the AARP were working with us. They were able to hold out and convince the University of the importance of making these policy changes.

It wasn't everything we had asked for. The requests, well the demands we made were in an ideal situation. What we ended up with was not quite everything that we asked for, but it's a start. Especially if Ohio State follows up and follows through with it.

Kathy Moon:

Now we didn't settle until the university agreed to injunctive relief. That's where we really feel like we were able to do something for our colleagues and co-workers even though they haven't experienced it yet. We're really hoping that that will happen.

Bob Edwards:

It's very hard to prove age discrimination and the burden of proof is on the person making the claim. You had emails. Your supervisor’s emails that just made him guilty as hell. But most people don't have them.

Julie Taaffe:

Even with that kind of evidence of a bias against older staffers. It isn't enough. That by itself isn't enough. That's why it was important when we found that there were not financial reasons for it. And that showed up in the emails, so that was helpful.

There are all kinds of impediments to actually doing a lawsuit for age discrimination or a successful lawsuit for age discrimination. The fear—a lot of our colleagues were simply terrified of losing their jobs and not of losing their jobs, but in our case of being subject to the kind of abuse that they were. So there's that kind of fear.

And financially we would not have been able to do it if the AARP had not become interested in the case. Because otherwise I had pretty much reached the end of my financial resources and I knew I couldn't do the suit by myself.

Bob Edwards:

So, what does your case mean to the rest of the country?

Kathy Moon:

That kind of remains to be seen. We are very surprised that it has gotten as much publicity as it has. Because we are just two normal people who teach English as a Second Language. Pretty normal.

 

Julie Taaffe:

Pretty normal. [Laughter]

Kathy Moon:

And we were led into this situation and we are actually surprised and thrilled that it could help other people and we hope it does. But we don't know yet what it will do.

Julie Taaffe:

We were a little startled to hear that Bob Edwards actually wanted to talk to us. That I think is the final straw.

Bob Edwards:

So it was all worth it then?

Julie Taaffe:

Yeah, I would do it all again just for this moment.

Bob Edwards:

Well thank you for sharing your story and good luck back on campus.

 

[TRANSITION]

 

Bob Edwards:

 

Kathryn Moon and Julianne Taaffe, newly reinstated to Ohio State University.

Now let's turn to Susan Weinstock of AARP.

 

Bob Edwards:

AARP just released the value of experience survey of workers aged 45 and over. What did the research say about the prevalence of age discrimination?

Susan Weinstock:

61% of people said that they had seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. And these were workers over the age of 45 that we surveyed. But, then of those 61 percen… of those 61 percent, 90% said that it was either common, either somewhat or very common, to have age discrimination in the workplace.

Bob Edwards:

In what ways did people say they experienced age discrimination?

Susan Weinstock:

Well 25 percent of them said had been subjected to derogatory remarks about their age, either from a supervisor or from a co-worker. And then a lot of them had been asked about like a graduation date or their birth date. 44 percent of them when they were applying for a job. 

Bob Edwards:

So?

Susan Weinstock:

That means an employer, if you have to put that in, immediately knows your age and in some cases the applicant tracking systems will weed you out.

Bob Edwards:

If there is gender bias or race bias, there are consequences. And they're serious. It doesn't seem to be that way with age. The burden of proof seems so heavy….

Susan Weinstock:

The burden of proof is higher. And age discrimination, some people say, is the forgotten type of discrimination. That it's much harder to prove. The burden is higher and that’s why we’ve been spending our time educating employers. 

Bob Edwards:

Experience seems like a hard thing to come by. Where can people learn about employers who value the experience that older workers bring to the table?

Susan Weinstock:

AARP has an employer pledge program. Our pledge program, we work with employers, we now have over 700 of them who have signed up.

What they say when they sign up: they affirm that they value a multi-generational workforce. They value older workers. That they're going to hire based on ability regardless of age.

This is not a heavy lift because this is the law. But it is something that we want to have people actually say very publicly: that they affirm this sort of thing.

So, if people want to learn more about it they can go to aarp.org/employerpledge and they can see the names of the companies who have signed our pledge.

Bob Edwards:

 

Thank you very much.

 

Susan Weinstock:

 

Thank you.

 

 

[END OF INTERVIEW]

[TRANSITION]

 

Bob Edwards:

Here’s what else you need to know this week.

Senator John McCain, the two-time presidential candidate from Arizona, died last weekend, leaving a legacy of public service that spanned six decades.  Many tributes have noted his courage and his candor.  But the senator didn’t just buck the Trump Administration; over the years McCain delivered praise and criticism aplenty for anyone in politics.

McCain long sought campaign-finance reform.  In 2002, the McCain-Feingold Act finally became law when he and Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, joined up to ban unlimited “soft money” in politics.  When McCain spoke to an AARP convention as he sought the presidency, he shared credit for his signature victory.

Senator McCain audio clip:

 “We would have never passed campaign-finance reform if it hadn’t been for AARP and the support of the millions of members, and I’m grateful for that.”

[APPLAUSE]

Bob Edwards:

But McCain ribbed sometimes-allies, too.  Feingold recounted joining McCain on an inspection trip to Iraq in 2006.  A Republican governor pressed McCain on why he brought the Democrat along.  McCain quipped: “I bring Russ along because he is consistent — consistently wrong.”

From lavish, to playful, to lacerating, McCain’s words disrupted political discourse before the current era of disrupted discourse.

In 2009, as national health reform was being debated, McCain took aim at AARP, which had backed health reform to help uninsured Americans, particularly those who were too young for Medicare and who often faced daunting health insurance costs. But McCain was firm in his opposition:

Senator McCain audio clip:

“I say to the senior citizens in my state: take your AARP membership card, cut it in half and send it back to AARP because they have betrayed you.”

Bob Edwards:

By 2017, McCain had come to think differently about the Affordable Care Act.  He became the pivotal vote to save it, returning to Washington from his sick bed to deliver his memorable after-midnight, thumbs-down vote on the Senate floor against ACA repeal. 

As AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins said on the news of McCain’s death: “He earned the title ‘American Hero’ many times over.  His courageous vote last year to protect Americans’ health care is just one example of his principled approach to his public service.”

McCain died with his reputation as a maverick intact.  He was four days shy of his 82nd birthday.

OUTRO:

 

For more, visit AARP dot org slash podcast.

Become a subscriber, and be sure to rate our podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and other podcast apps.

Thanks for listening.  I’m Bob Edwards.

 

Today’s episode of “An AARP Take on Today” podcast discusses how two college instructors faced age discrimination in the workplace and how they prevailed, and AARP remembers Sen. John McCain and his legacy of public service.

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