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Age discrimination a growing issue in a difficult economy

By Curt Burnett

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, March 8 2012 10:14 a.m. MST

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Robert sees a sad irony in becoming a victim of age discrimination.

“It was my generation – the Baby Boomers – that pushed through federal anti-discrimination laws in 1967," he said. "Yet, we’re still experiencing the bitter taste of age bias in today’s workplace.”

Robert, who just turned 65, has been searching for a job for several months. After a successful 35-year career in business, he retired in 2007 with what he thought was a sufficient nest egg. However, the subsequent recession and stock market collapse eviscerated his 401(k) and stock holdings.

“I knew it was unrealistic to expect to find a high-level position, especially during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. So I set my sights on mid-level positions within a variety of companies," Robert said. "I dutifully submitted applications for scores of jobs for which I felt well qualified with my extensive experience. In a few cases, I received a politely-worded rejection e-mail; most of the time, however, I received no response whatsoever. I can only attribute it to age discrimination.”

Age discrimination numbers on the rise

A growing number of older workers apparently share Robert’s perception of ongoing age bias, according to statistics from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 2011, the commission received 23,465 “receipts” or formal filings alleging age discrimination – 35 percent more than in 2001. In Utah, age-discrimination receipts totaled 181 in 2011, a 10 percent increase over the past decade.

“We’re seeing more complaints in large measure because there simply are more older workers in the workforce,” said Monica Austen, a case manager for the Utah Anti-Discrimination and Labor Division. “People also are more aware of federal and state protections against age discrimination and legal and administrative remedies."

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of workers age 55-64 is projected to rise 40 percent from 2006-2016, nearly double that for those over 65. By 2016, workers age 65 and over are expected to account for 6.1 percent of the total workforce, compared with 3.6 percent a decade earlier.

Four in ten Utahns have experienced “at least one form of age discrimination in the workplace,” according to a 2001 survey by AARP. “About one in six say (he or she), a family member, or a friend has been laid off, fired or forced out of a job or has been encouraged to retire early because of age,” the survey indicated. “One in seven respondents say that since turning 40, (he or she) or someone close to them has either not been hired for a job or has received unwelcome comments about age in the workplace. Slightly fewer say that (he or she) or a family member or a friend has been passed up for a promotion, a raise, or been denied the opportunity to learn new skills.”

Michael O’Brien, an attorney with the Salt Lake City law firm Jones Waldo, said rising employment-discrimination cases are also a product of “difficult economic times."

“When the economy is strong, it’s easier for people who have been fired or laid off to find another job quickly – and they’re more likely to disregard perceived discrimination and move on with their lives," he said. "But with high unemployment, people are more fearful and willing to go to state and federal agencies with claims of discrimination.”

Identifying age discrimination

Age discrimination is one aspect of employment discrimination that is prohibited under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act that was initially enacted in 1967. According to the UALD, discrimination occurs when someone is treated differently – or when an employer takes action against an employee – because of that individual’s race, color, sex, pregnancy, disability national origin, age (over 40) or religion.

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