The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received some 8,000 age discrimination complaints last year but only took three dozen to court.

On the surface, this appears to be poor record. But the EEOC is winning most of the age cases it files. This is significant for older workers because it sets a precedent, making it more difficult for employers to practice age discrimination.

Employers are not supposed to judge workers' competency on the basis of race, sex, religion, ethnic background -- or age. Basically, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act says that it is unlawful for an employer to "fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against such individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of such individual's age."

Translated, this means you can't be fired, pressured into retirement, passed by for promotion, or denied training opportunities because of your age.

Within the past year, the EEOC has been using this law to crack down on various forms of age discrimination, including the lowering of mandatory retirement age levels to force out older workers, and the setting of maximum hiring age levels to screen out older applicants.

Eastern Airlines reduced the mandatory retirement age for flight attendants from 65 to 62 and some 30 older stewardesses filed complaints. The EEOC took Eastern to court, claiming the retirement age reduction was a form of discrimination. Both the federal district court and court of appeals upheld the complaint and Eastern was ordered to install the previous retirement age level and compensate employes who had been forced to retire.

At the other end of the employment ladder, a number of police and fire departments have set up maximum age limits for hiring recruits.

The EEOC filed suit against city governments in Baltimore and Los Angeles to challenge maximum ages for public service employes who were entering potentially dangerous jobs. In both cities, the EEOC was able to convince the courts that the maximum age was discriminatory and not necessary to protect the employes.