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Federal, State Lawmakers Tackling Age Discrimination in Employment

AARP urges Congress to protect older workers. New Jersey and Connecticut legislatures also pass bills

older female worker at home desk with mobile phone, laptop and notepad

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En español | With more workers beginning to return to their jobs as more Americans get COVID-19 vaccines, lawmakers in Congress and some states are addressing the need to better protect older employees against age discrimination. Recent votes on three bills that address on-the-job bias show a growing awareness of how important workers age 50 and older are to the nation's economy.

On June 23, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 247-178 to approve the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA) with bipartisan support. The legislation would restore protections lost as the result of a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision that made it more difficult for people who face age discrimination in the workplace to successfully challenge age bias in court. The House first passed this legislation in January 2020, but the Senate did not vote on it. AARP continues to urge federal lawmakers to pass POWADA.

"Today's vote is a crucial moment for older workers who have waited more than a decade for legislation to restore fairness and protections against age discrimination,” AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer Nancy LeaMond said following the House vote. “The strong bipartisan support for POWADA sends a clear message that discrimination in the workplace — against older workers or others — is unacceptable. Ageism is not only harmful to workers but for companies, too, who miss out on the experience and expertise older workers bring.”

The bill now moves again to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain. But as lawmakers look to raise employment numbers that dropped dramatically during the pandemic, the recession's effect on older adults in particular will need to be addressed, advocates say. During economic downturns, older workers typically file more complaints of age discrimination in firing and other workplace actions, according to data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and state-level civil rights agencies.

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Some states are taking action

While Congress continues to debate POWADA, at least two state legislatures recently approved increased older worker protections. Earlier this week, the New Jersey legislature passed a bill with strong bipartisan support that eliminates language in state law that made it possible for employers to refuse to hire or promote people age 70 and older. The bill, for which AARP New Jersey advocated, also closes loopholes that permitted mandatory retirement ages for government workers and tenured employees at colleges and university.

"Every worker deserves to be judged on how well they do their job, never on their age,” said AARP New Jersey Advocacy Associate State Director Crystal McDonald. “The reality is that our workforce is getting older, and people are working longer; yet, 3 in 5 older workers report seeing or experiencing age discrimination on the job."

The New Jersey law also would let those who encounter age discrimination in the workplace in the state sue for punitive damages. Most age discrimination laws currently only let victims sue for lost pay due to bias, along with the interest that might have accumulated. The bill now awaits the signature of Gov. Phil Murphy, who is expected to sign it.

Earlier in June, the Connecticut legislature passed a bipartisan bill that makes it illegal for employers to ask applicants questions such as when they were born or when they graduated from high school, questions that federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) does not specifically prohibit. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, has signed the bill, making it a law.

AARP Connecticut's advocacy for the law included getting older workers to testify about their experiences looking for jobs. AARP volunteer Stacy Stableford of Trumbull, Connecticut, told the legislature what happened to her during a telephone interview with an employment agency when she was 60 years old.

"I was asked, ‘What year did you graduate high school?’ My immediate reaction was one of confusion, so I answered honestly,” Stableford said. The agency's response? They immediately hung up, she said. “I possessed every skill needed and many beyond, yet that one age-related question disqualified me in their eyes."

Editor’s Note: This article originally was published on June 24, 2021. It has been updated with information about Connecticut’s governor signing the bill.

Kenneth Terrell covers employment, age discrimination, work and jobs, careers, and the federal government for AARP. He previously worked for the Education Writers Association and U.S. News & World Report, where he reported on government and politics, business, education, science and technology, and lifestyle news.

Watch: AARP’s Decades-Long Fight Against Age Discrimination