Dear Savvy Senior,
What constitutes age discrimination in the workplace, and where can I turn to for help if I think I've got a case?
--Demoted at 64
Age discrimination has become a much more frequent complaint in recent years as more and more people are working into their retirement years. But, you need to be aware that proving it is extremely difficult to do, especially since the 2009 Supreme Court decision that raised the bar for the type of legal proof that workers need to win age discrimination lawsuits.
With that said, here are the steps you'll need to take to fight age discrimination if you think you've been treated unlawfully.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) is your first defense against age discrimination. This is a federal law that says an employer cannot fire, refuse to hire or treat you differently than other employees because of your age. Some examples of age discrimination include:
• You were fired because your boss wanted to keep younger workers who are paid less.
• You were turned down for a promotion, which went to someone younger hired from outside the company, because the boss says the company "needs new blood."
• When company layoffs are announced, most of the persons laid off were older, while younger workers with less seniority and less on-the-job experience were kept on.
• Before you were fired, your supervisor made age-related remarks about you.
• You didn't get hired because the employer wanted a younger-looking person to do the job.
The ADEA protects all workers and job applicants age 40 and over who work for employers that have 20 or more employees -- including federal, state and local governments as well as employment agencies and labor unions.
If your workplace has fewer than 20 employees, you may still be protected under your state's anti-age discrimination law. Contact your state labor department or your state's fair employment practices agency for more information.
Another protection for older workers is the federal Older Workers Benefit Protection Act. Under this law, an employer cannot reduce health or life insurance benefits for older employees, nor can it stop their pensions from accruing if they work past their normal retirement age. It also discourages businesses from targeting older workers when cutting staff and prohibits employers from forcing employees to take early retirement.
What to Do
If you think you are a victim of employment age discrimination, your first step is to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) usually within 180 days from the date of the alleged violation. You can do this by mail or in person at your nearest EEOC office, or by calling 800-669-4000. They will help you through the filing process and let you know if you should also file a charge with your state anti-discrimination agency.
Once the charge is filed, the EEOC will investigate your complaint and find either reasonable cause to believe that age discrimination has occurred, or no cause and no basis for a claim. After the investigation, the EEOC will then send you their findings along with a "notice-of-right-to-sue," which gives you permission to file a lawsuit in a court of law.
If you decide to sue, you'll need to hire a lawyer who specializes in employee discharge suits. Lawyers.com and Findlaw.com are two websites that can help you locate discrimination attorneys in your area.
Another option you should consider is mediation, which is a fair and efficient way to help you resolve your employment disputes and reach an agreement. The EEOC offers mediation at no cost if your current or former employer agrees to participate. At mediation, you show up with your evidence, your employer presents theirs and the mediator makes a determination within a day or less.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.