EEOC Explores Plight of Older Workers in Current Economic Climate

In a Nov. 17 meeting, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) heard testimony that age discrimination is causing the nation’s older workers to have a difficult time maintaining and finding new employment, a problem exacerbated by the downturn in the economy.

The number and percentage of age discrimination charges filed with EEOC has grown, rising from 16,548 charges (21.8 percent of all charges) filed in fiscal year 2006 to 22,778 (24.4 percent) in fiscal year 2009.

EEOC heard testimony from a number of experts on the impact of the economic crisis on older workers, the legal issues surrounding age discrimination today and best practices to retain older workers. Dr. William Spriggs, assistant secretary for policy, U.S. Department of Labor, testified that the rate of unemployment for people age 55 and over “rose from a pre-recession low of 3.0 percent (November 2007) to reach 7.3 percent in August,2010, making the past 22 months the longest spell of high unemployment workers in this age group have experienced in 60 years.”

Older workers also spend far more time searching for work and are jobless for far longer periods of time compared to workers under 55.

Spriggs’ testimony reflected the experience of Jessie Williams, who had worked for 31 years in Las Vegas at Republic Services, a multi-million dollar waste disposal company. After more than three decades of stellar employment, he was terminated along with four other foremen over 40.

“I was told that I wasn’t needed any longer . . . [and] that they were going to ‘get rid of the old foremen and get some new blood,’” Williams testified.

Following his discharge, Williams had to move out of state to find employment. He later became part of the EEOC’s suit against Republic filed on behalf of more than 20 workers discharged due to their age. The case ultimately settled for nearly $3 million.

Retaining and Attracting Older Workers

Another panel discussed legal issues relating to age discrimination, including the impact of legal precedents, as well as the important role EEOC can play in addressing the issue. Finally, representatives of the AARP and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) discussed best practices to retain and attract older workers. These include increasing part-time and flexible work schedules, offering “phased retirement” and, in appropriate situations, permitting employees to switch to geographically distant locations during certain seasons – the so-called “snow bird” migration to warmer climates in the wintertime.

“Hard-working men and women should never be harassed at work or forced out of their jobs on account of their age,” said EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien. “The testimony we heard today also sheds light on some of the unique challenges faced by older job seekers and will be invaluable as the commission works to strengthen its enforcement of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.”

Materials from the meeting, including more information about age discrimination, can be found on EEOC’s Web site.

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