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Jack Gross Hits Back Against Age Discrimination

He talks with Bob Edwards about taking his fight to Congress in part 2 of this episode

Jack Gross testifies at Congress

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Jack Gross testifies at a Congressional hearing.

Bob Edwards: Hello, I'm Bob Edwards, with an AARP Take On Today.

Last week we welcomed storyteller, spoken word artist, musician, and actor, Mike Ellison to the show.

Mike Ellison: Happy to be back, Bob. Thank you.

Bob Edwards: Today, Mike continues the story of Jack Gross and his battle against age discrimination in the workplace. Jack worked hard all his life and in the prime of a distinguished career, was suddenly demoted by his employer, Farm Bureau Life Insurance Company. This isn't just one person's story, this is the story of a generation. Mr. Gross wasn't the only employee to suffer this fate. In fact, many of his colleagues around age 50 were also demoted.

Jack Gross: And I'd seen a lot of people who probably had very good discrimination cases but they didn't follow through because they were worried about financial impact, impact on their careers.

Bob Edwards: Jack proceeded to set himself apart once more by filing suit against the company and won. However, after many appeals and reversals, his case ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court. Now we arrive at the 10 year anniversary of the court's decision.

Chairman Bobby Scott: Committee on Education and Labor will come to order. I will first recognize Ms. McCann.

Laurie McCann: Thank you. Chairman Scott, ranking member Foxx, and members of the committee, on behalf of our nearly 38 million members and all older Americans, AARP thanks you for inviting us to testify on employment barriers facing older workers and H.R.1230, the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act or POWADA. Unfortunately, courts have failed to interpret the Age Discrimination in Employment Act as a remedial civil rights statute, but instead narrowly interpret and erode its protections.

Exhibit A is the Gross versus FBL financial services decision, which came out 10 years ago next month. Joining me here today is the plaintiff Mr. Jack Gross. When his case was appealed to the Supreme Court, the court ruled that the ADA requires a much stricter showing causation than other kinds of discrimination. It was no longer enough to prove that age was one of the motivating factors behind an employer's conduct, the court held that older workers must prove that age was a decisive but for cause for the employer's actions.

Bob Edwards: It becomes incredibly difficult to prove age discrimination since the court's decision and it's become much easier for corporations and employers in general to demote, dismiss, or derail older workers for no good reason. Last week, Jack Gross opened up to Mike Ellison about this extraordinarily trying time in his life, his upbringing, values, and more.

We continue now with Take On Today's in-depth conversation with age discrimination victim and subsequent unlikely hero, Jack Gross.

Jack Gross: He said, "Well where are you going?" And I said, "Well, I got stung. I'm going to go up and see grandma." He steps down, said, "I thought you wanted to be a farmer." "Well I do." He said, "Farmer doesn't go run in the house every time he gets a little bee sting. Walk it off and come back here and finish your job."

Mike Ellison: You just heard the voice of Jack Gross. He was talking about a particular lesson he learned at age six delivered from his grandfather via a bee stinger on the Gross family farm in Iowa. It was one well learned and sharp, "Finish the job." So to this day and after many years of living, learning, and growing, Jack continues to rise to this high standard.

In the previous episode, we learned that Jack's plans for the future radically changed at age 54. The demotion, the isolation at work, the financial, personal, professional, physical costs, all trials in many ways and more. Today we focus on Jack's fight to reclaim his name and redefine his life's legacy. By nature, fights require participation. What we take from Jack is that participation, an unwritten demand of America and its citizens, isn't so much about politics as it is about being in the arena. So like his grandfather said, "Walk it off, come back in, and finish your job." For Jack, that meant keep sparring and here's the blow by blow.

The first round didn't happen because Jack and his colleagues were demoted. It happened because Jack made a tough decision to say something about being demoted simply because of his age.

Jack Gross: I would say I was probably the least likely, at least in Farm Bureau, to have ever done this. I was a total company man and then all of a sudden for me to be the one who was challenging them, it seemed a little bit ironic. We prayed about it, agonized about it, and finally just decided that this just isn't right, somebody has to step up and say, "You can't do these things. It's obvious. You can't come in and demote everybody over 50 on the same day and not expect to get challenged on it."

Mike Ellison: Round one, stepping up. Jack Gross made a very conscious decision to challenge the institution he worked day and night for over an esteemed and internally lauded career. It was tough for him to do this despite knowing that he'd been treated unfairly, wrongly, and despite knowing in his heart, he'd been discriminated against because of misappropriated value and values. Remember, Jack's employer, FBL, certainly valued the savings they achieved by freezing Jack and his colleagues' salaries. We learned from Jack's account last episode, that FBL management's benefit package increase was roughly the amount of the sum of Jack and his colleagues' salary cuts. Coincidence or orchestrated greed? We may never know the real answer, but things like this happen every single day. In fact, according to recent EEOC numbers last year, there were more than 18,000 age discrimination complaints submitted. And AARP studies found that six out of 10 older workers have seen or experienced age discrimination on the job. 90% say it's common.

Jack Gross: And a lot of people who came to me later and said, "We think you're doing the right thing and we were also affected and we would maybe like to join in with you." But I had to explain to them, the window is closed if you don't do this within 180 days. And I think we need to do a better job of letting people know that if you're going to make this decision, hard as is it, and it's not one you should take lightly, but you better do it within 180 days because after that you're out.

Mike Ellison: Round two, inspiring others to act quickly. Jack's colleagues ran into a barrier as they attempted to emulate his actions, however. And what they soon learned is the statute of limitations expires in 180 days. If you don't report it within this window, you've lost your opportunity forever. Now, Jack would probably prefer lead by example as opposed to inspire to act as a descriptor of his actions, but regardless, the effect is the same. Changing minds by working for what you value. And it's not always through strike though, as is apparent, when Jack talks about his father.

Jack Gross: It is a legacy thing. My dad was my mentor, probably the biggest influence on my life. He had rules for everything, taught me everything. There's some great stories there. But I think he'd be proud of me because I'm taking on this fight, he would've taken on this fight, I know he would've taken on this fight and probably been much better at it than I have been. And yeah, we're proud of our family name. We've done well. We've always tried to fight the good fight.

Mike Ellison: For Jack, the legacy is carried on by his children and we learned about the pride he takes in his son's accomplishments.

Jack Gross: He's going to be 49 and he has done exactly the right things. He has always kept himself ahead of the game on what's going on with the industry. He's got his credentials and if something would happen to him at his age, he'd be high demand.

Mike Ellison: So there's round three of the fight, be excellent. Jack Gross is telling me that the best way to prepare for a world where you could be cast aside from moving up, is to always, always be your best so that they can't reject you. Be your best, all in order to truly determine that you win your fight, your match, without the cheap shots that Jack was forced to take. It reminds me of something David Bowie said, "Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been." If that's the case, Jack Gross's excellence can help make that ultimate person, that ultimate us, a lot better. We're going to take a little commercial break before round four.

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Mike Ellison: Okay, so those were obviously not real ads. Got you. And so does a culture that discards experience. Jack's fight is bigger than Jack. In fact, it's one that will likely continue to require a blow by blow account for the foreseeable future. America is aging in droves and there is power in that, which could, in the end, position Jack Gross, not only as a fighter for a cause that's about to get much more popular, literally, but as a true visionary. Look, when we're talking about Americans who are 50 plus, there are 111 million. 111 million strong and growing. They spend, they vote, they volunteer, they blog, run marathons, have second careers, and they're caregivers, and they also present an opportunity for innovation. You see, they face real health and money challenges that need to be solved. And with all this, comes more people who are willing to step up, inspire, and be excellent. Just like Jack.

In fact, as we were recording this episode, the House Education and Labor Committee voted to approve the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act, also known as POWADA. Now, this is a key step toward reversing the Supreme Court decision that changed Jack's life and so many others. Maybe one day down the road, when it comes to the intersection of our courts and our culture, Gross versus FBL will be right up there with Ledbetter versus Goodyear or Brown versus the Board of Education. The sheer numbers of us and our years on the planet, put Jack in a better position when it comes to history restoring his legacy naturally. That's it. In the meantime, we're just over 10 years past the decision that changed the course of Jack Gross's life and presented him with this opportunity to fight.

Most people would have just stopped after the Supreme Court's opinion, but Jack's not most people. In fact, on the 10th anniversary of the decision, Jack Gross was back on Capitol Hill no less, walking door to door, talking to Congress people and senators about the need to restore protections for anyone in the workplace when it comes to age discrimination.

Jack Gross: I'm kind of excited this time because it sounds like we're picking up a lot more sponsors and things are moving in our direction. I like to think of myself as maybe the next Lilly Ledbetter because she stayed in there and kept fighting long after it was going to do her any personal good.

Mike Ellison: Given the current political state of our union and thinking about Jack as the most unlikely lobbyist one could imagine, I had to ask him if this was a partisan issue in any way, shape, or form.

Jack Gross: No. No, in fact, one of the things that pleased me most is almost immediately after the Supreme Court fiasco, my two senators, Senator Grassley and Senator Harkin, both had been there years, one a Democrat, one a Republican, co-sponsored the original POWADA bill and both were fighting equally hard for what was right. I think they share the same Midwestern values. This should be, if anything, should be a nonpartisan issue. This one is because both parties have constituencies out there that are age 50 and above who need this legislation.

Mike Ellison: Jack is talking about POWADA, the bill we referenced just now, and it's encouraging that more action has taken place since we caught up with Jack on the Hill. So this is Jack's round four, optimism. After so much struggle physically, professionally, personally, decade after decade, Jack looks to the brighter side of things and channels brightness and a better way forward into action, still to this very day.

Jack Gross: And like I say, I'm a happy guy, I'm a natural optimist. Things are good and always going to get better and I'm loving my life. Retirement, I highly recommend by the way, once you get there.

Mike Ellison: I'm Mike Ellison and it's a pleasure and an honor to be a part of Take On Today for AARP. I'm thankful for the opportunity to bring you Jack Gross's story and like all the people who help put this together and everyone at AARP, we're betting this fight ends in four rounds with Jack Gross and the American people as the clear winner. Well, he's that already, in my humble opinion, that's just my take. It's important to hear both sides of every story. So we reached out to FBL for comment about Jack's case and here's a written statement they sent us, quote, "Our company has always taken the position that we treated Mr. Gross fairly under the law and our position was upheld judicially by the United States Supreme Court. We are committed to hiring the most appropriate and qualified candidate for the job without regard to age, gender, race, religion, or other characteristics of protected classes. We value the experience and knowledge that older workers bring to the workplace," end quote. And that's our Take On Today. I'm happy to give it back to you, Bob.

Bob Edwards: Mike, hello.

Mike Ellison: Hey Bob, How are you?

Bob Edwards: Good. I understand tomorrow is a big anniversary. What's going on?

Mike Ellison: Yeah, that's right Bob. Some people don't know that riots in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, served as a catalyst for the modern gay rights movement. Now, just to give this some context, same-sex activity of any kind was illegal in the state of New York in 1969.

Crowd: Stonewall was an uprising.

I came out in 1969, the same year as Stonewall.

There was a group of people that actually had the courage to just stand up and say no.

And at Stonewall, it had to be a violent one.

It's exciting to me that our kids won't have to fight so hard.

Mike Ellison: So the riots were in reaction to routine police raids at the Stonewall Inn, and this was a watershed moment that sparked a national movement for LGBTQ liberation. So we went digging to see if and why Stonewall matters 50 years later.

Bob Edwards: And what did you find?

Mike Ellison: Well, what we found, Bob, is that even though Stonewall happened five decades ago, LGBTQ people and couples still find themselves fighting for proper or equal recognition. And it's especially poignant for older LGBTQ Americans when they're accessing nursing homes, assisted living, or caregiving for one another.

Bob Edwards: When will we hear your story?

Mike Ellison: We'll bring you our story, Stonewall at 50, in July.

Bob Edwards: We've all seen the ads for supplements claiming so-called scientifically proven nutrients for a healthier brain. Dietary supplements have been in vogue with American consumers for decades. The veracity of their claims have been under scrutiny for just as long. The Global Council on Brain Health, an independent collaborative of scientists, health professionals, scholars, and policy experts who are working in areas of brain health, released a new report discouraging the use of dietary supplements for brain health. The council is convened by AARP with support from Age UK, to offer the best possible advice about what older adults can do to maintain and improve their brain health. The council reviewed the scientific evidence on various supplements and determined it could not endorse any ingredient, product, or formulation designed for brain health.

So this begs the question, what can we do to improve our brain health? To find more information about brain health, visit globalcouncilonbrainhealth.org.

For more, visit AARP.org/podcast. Become a subscriber and be sure to rate our podcast on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, and other podcast apps. Thanks for listening. I'm Bob Edwards.

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A loss at the Supreme Court on age discrimination is no match for Jack Gross as he fights in extra rounds for Congress to act. Find out how this two-part saga concludes.

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