By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 16, 2009
With leaders of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission warning yesterday that the American workforce faces "an equal opportunity plague" of age discrimination, workers' advocates urged commissioners to support new federal protections.
Workers filed nearly 30 percent more age discrimination charges last year than in 2007. "That is a huge increase, and it will continue going up," testified Cathy Ventrell-Monsees, president of the nonprofit group Workplace Fairness, at a public hearing at EEOC headquarters in Washington.
Among federal workers, only retaliation was alleged more often in formal complaints as a basis for discrimination.
Such numbers led Stuart J. Ishimaru, acting chairman of the EEOC, to wonder aloud whether "the public generally realizes that age discrimination is illegal." Christine M. Griffin, acting vice chair, said, "It's fair to anticipate age discrimination charges will rise as the financial crisis plays out."
Rising unemployment has left older workers vulnerable to layoffs, because they are often stereotyped by employers as costing more money and being less adaptable to change, witnesses testified. The hearing included emotional testimony from several people who told of losing their jobs because of their age.
"I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy," said Michael L. Barnes, 46. The EEOC alleges that Barnes was fired from his job collecting trash in Las Vegas by a company that systematically discriminated against older workers.
Describing older workers in demeaning terms remains "socially acceptable," noted Anna Y. Park, regional attorney for the EEOC's Los Angeles district office, which has filed suit against Barnes's former employer, Republic Services in Nevada.
"People who would not dream of making sexually provocative statements or using a racial epithet will think nothing of calling someone 'grandpa' or an 'old mutt' or 'old bag,' " Park said.
Downsizing decisions are often made by a single manager, and often with little or no consideration to an employee's experience or contributions over the years, according to Michael Campion, a professor of management at Purdue University who has researched the topic of age stereotypes in the workplace.
"You would be amazed at how often they have not even looked at the personnel files," Campion testified.
Witnesses testified that the Age Discrimination Act in Employment, passed by Congress in 1967, has been decimated by several recent Supreme Court decisions that curtail the ability of older workers to challenge age discrimination.
They urged the commission to issue regulations and guidance that would give workers better legal standing. But unless Congress works to restore protections, the 1967 age discrimination law will be "merely words on paper," said Laurie McCann, an attorney for the AARP Foundation.
"Age discrimination is an equal opportunity plague," Ishimaru said. "It is not limited to members of a particular class or a particular race. It is not limited to particular industries or particular regions. And it is not limited to a particular gender."
"How often do we hear employers talking about getting fresh blood in?" asked EEOC Commissioner Constance S. Barker. "What are they talking about? They want younger and cuter."