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Age Discrimination 101: What You Need to Know

Age discrimination is more common than most people probably realize, with reported instances likely dwarfed by incidents no one ever hears about. Acting EEOC chair Victoria Lipnic says, “Like harassment, everyone knows it happens every day to workers in all kinds of jobs, but few speak up. It’s an open secret.”

It’s also against the law. In the U.S., the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) prohibits age discrimination in employment. Here’s what you need to know about age discrimination and ADEA.

What’s covered by the ADEA?

The law exclusively covers employees and job applicants 40 years of age or older, applying only to employers with 20 or more employees, including government offices and agencies. It protects both employees and job applicants. The ADEA prohibits discrimination with respect to any term, condition or privilege of employment, including hiring, firing, promotions, layoffs, compensation, benefits, job assignments, and training. It also prohibits any policies or procedures that negatively impact workers 40 or older specifically.

Is age discrimination really a problem?

In short: yes, bias against older workers is real. The EEOC conducted research to mark the 50th anniversary of ADEA and found that while workers over the age of 40 had grabbed a bigger share of the workforce, reports of age-based discrimination have also risen. However, many incidents are never officially reported. Further, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) reports that 1 in 5 of the discrimination claims received by the EEOC are related to age discrimination.

How serious are EEOC complaints legally, from the employer’s perspective?

This question varies tremendously. Age discrimination can be hard to prove, and the EEOC finds reasonable cause in only a fraction of the submitted complaints (less than 5% on average). Further, a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling created a higher burden of proof for age discrimination than other types of discrimination. Nevertheless, any formal complaint to the EEOC creates significant risk for employers and thus engages them to defend their actions.

Are there any reasons employers should reconsider age discrimination other than the ADEA?

Yes. For one, all 50 states in the U.S. also have their own age discrimination laws, many of which are stronger than the ADEA, may apply to employers with fewer than 20 employees, and may protect employees under 40 years of age as well. Besides, creating a welcoming work environment for older workers can help businesses to navigate a competitive labor market and staffing shortages. Older workers are also less likely to turnover; an AARP study found that a higher proportion of employees age 55 and over are engaged at work when compared to younger workers.

 

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