More fallout from the Great Recession: The Florida Commission on Human Relations, the state’s civil rights agency, reports a spike in age discrimination complaints by employees over 40—219 filed in the first nine months of FY 2009-2010, vs. 245 in all of FY 2008-2009.
“The economy is likely the main culprit,” says the commission’s public information director, Leah Barber-Heinz. “We hear a lot of stories about older employees, who’ve been with their companies for a long time, being paid top dollar, being demoted or fired so they can bring in younger employees at half the pay.”
Age discrimination toward workers over 40 is illegal, of course. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Web site, “The law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.”
Yet, except for a dip in 2008-2009, says Barber-Heinz, age discrimination complaints to the FCHR have increased every year since 2004. And the EEOC, the state agency’s federal counterpart, reports that age discrimination complaints by employees soared 29 percent to 24,600 nationwide in the year ending Sept. 30, 2008. Just over a quarter of the 93,000-plus individual complaints registered nationwide in 2009 by the EEOC were age-related.
Age discrimination lawsuits can and do bring major penalties, Barber-Heinz cautions, and are also costly for the company’s reputation. “If word hits the street that a company is practicing age discrimination, people will not want to work there,” she says. They’re bad, too, for current employees’ morale. “They often have to be witnesses and give testimony; it’s very uncomfortable for them,” she says. “And we’re seeing retaliation—people who testify, who feel they’re being treated differently by the company.”
By law, the FCHR must make a determination on an employee’s age discrimination complaint within 180 days of its filing. If the EEOC or commission finds reasonable cause, the complainant receives the right to bring a lawsuit against the company, and “there can be major penalties awarded,” says Barber-Heinz. “It’s a very bad time for companies not to pay attention to this area. It’s really about education and communication.”
How to Avoid Age Discrimination
Establish your policies. “We advise companies to have strong internal anti-discrimination policies on the books, and keep them updated,” says Barber-Heinz. For information on establishing those policies, go to http://fchr.state.fl.us/, or click on “Employers” then “Discrimination by Type” at eeoc.gov.
Make sure everyone is aware of them. Be sure managers are continually trained on the policies and what they mean, says Barber-Heinz, and make sure the staff knows how to file grievances and how to let managers and supervisors know if a situation is brewing. “Very often we hear, ‘We didn’t know this was going
on under our very own roof,’” she says.
Keep good records. “We tell both sides: document, document, document,” she says. If you feel you are being treated differently because of your age, write down the person you talked to and the date you talked to him or her, and keep a copy of your performance evaluation.