By MARSHA MERCER
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seems poised to fight age discrimination in hiring. That’s good news for workers over 55, who have more trouble recovering from job losses than younger workers.
Unemployment for people 55 and older soared from 3 percent in November 2007 to 7.3 percent in August. While 7.3 percent may not sound bad when the national unemployment rate is stuck near 10 percent, the last 22 months have been the longest spell of high unemployment older workers as a group have experienced in 60 years.
William Spriggs of the Labor Department provided the statistics at an EEOC hearing Wednesday on the plight of older workers in the current economy. Workers over 55 spend far more time searching for work and are jobless far longer than younger workers, he said.
Joblessness hurts older people particularly because they often lose their employer-based health insurance. Their life savings and home values evaporated in the financial meltdown. The triple whammy means retirement isn’t an option for many. Plus, baby boomers are likely to live into their 80s and beyond. Many want to stay active, and that means working.
Federal law prohibits age discrimination in the workplace, but the Age Discrimination in Employment Act mostly has been used to protect workers from discrimination in terminations. The 1967 law was written for a different America. Many people worked for the same company until they retired with a pension. Few older people wanted or had to look for work. In the current economy, though, all that has changed, and the EEOC is weighing its role.
“Many employers and others don’t know discrimination against older workers is illegal,” said Stuart J. Ishimaru, the commissioner who arranged the hearing.
Mary Anne Sedey, an employment attorney in St. Louis, represents many clients who lost jobs in their 50s and 60s. In the “old” days of 10 or 15 years ago, she said, her clients who had lost jobs usually found employment of some kind after a serious job search.
“That’s simply not true anymore,” she said.
Most of the evidence of age discrimination is anecdotal. Sedey told the story of Mike, 63, a salesman with 30 years of experience. Mike prepared a resume that’s somewhat ambiguous about how long he has worked and applied for a job online. The company’s human resources officer called, said Mike sounded just like what they were looking for, and scheduled an interview.
Mike arrived early for his 3 p.m. appointment and, as instructed, waited in the lobby. The interviewer came out, did a double take and told Mike she’d be with him in a few minutes. At 3:50, her assistant came out and said the interviewer was “running behind” and wouldn’t be able to interview him that day. Mike asked when he could come back, and the assistant said they would call him.
The next week, Mike got a letter thanking him for “the interview” and saying someone with better credentials had been hired.
Mike’s experience isn’t unusual, Sedey said. Kathy, 55, an attorney, and Stan, 59, a union carpenter, like Mike, have been unemployed for well over a year. Each has applied for more than 100 jobs, and none has been interviewed for a single one, Sedey said.
Most employers understand that it’s illegal to make hiring and firing decisions based on race or gender – but age is another area entirely.
“I am honestly amazed at the extent to which people don’t think it’s such a big deal to make these decisions based on age,” Sedey said.
Although older workers often believe they have been discriminated against, they rarely go to court because they lack information about what happened to the jobs for which they applied. Applicants rarely know who else applied or the qualifications of the person hired. They can only guess.
Several commissioners said the EEOC must respond to changing times. For a first step, it could stop the use of online job application programs that require an applicant to provide his or her date of birth or graduation dates. These programs often won’t allow someone to continue unless the information is given.
Today, though, said commissioner Chai R. Feldblum, age discrimination “is out there – alive and well.”
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.