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Most Utahns back bill to protect older workers from discrimination

Published: Wednesday, April 2 2014 6:31 p.m. MDT

Eighty-five percent of Utahns support bipartisan legislation intended to help combat age discrimination in the workplace, according an AARP survey.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Eighty-five percent of older Utahns say Congress needs to do more to ensure people over age 50 continue to have equal opportunity in the workplace.

That was one finding of a recent AARP survey of 500 Utahns ages 50 and older. The survey, conducted March 4-7 by Woelfel Research Inc., has a 4 percent margin of error.

The survey also found that 40 percent of the sample surveyed have experienced or know someone who has recently experienced age discrimination in the workplace.

"This AARP survey confirms what Utah residents know: Huge majorities demand fairness for older workers," said AARP Utah state director Alan Ormsby.

The survey indicated strong support for the Protecting Workers Against Age Discrimination Act proposed by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

The bill seeks to restore protections that existed before the 2009 Supreme Court decision in the case of Gross v. FBL Financial Services Inc. In a 5-4 decision, the court said a worker has to prove that age was the key factor in an employment decision, even if there is some evidence that age played a role.

Since the Gross decision, employees must prove that the employer would not have taken the adverse action "but for" their age.

Lauren Scholnick, a Salt Lake City attorney who specializes in representing employees in employment law cases, said the Gross case was not necessarily "a death knell for age discrimination cases," but it has likely had an impact whether workers file age discrimination lawsuits or whether attorneys take the cases.

The Gross case pointed out discrepancies between the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion, Scholnick said.

Ann Erickson, who is represented by Scholnick, filed a lawsuit in 2013 against her former employer, Sun Valley Co., alleging sexual harassment, age discrimination and corporate retaliation. Erickson worked for the company for 35 years, starting as a ski instructor, then moving into supervisor positions.

Attorneys for Sun Valley Co. wrote in their answer to Erickson's complaint that she was not subjected to any conduct that constituted discrimination based upon disability, age or gender, "nor was (Erickson) subjected to any adverse employment action based upon her alleged disability" age or gender.

The case is pending in U.S. District Court in Idaho.

Erickson, who lives in Idaho, says she believes as the population of aging Americans increases, more people will experience age discrimination in the workplace.

"I hope Congress will move forward with this," she said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Older workers bring experience, patience and maturity to their places of work, Erickson said.

Because people are living longer and healthier lives, it makes no sense to relegate older workers to the sidelines, she said.

Erickson, 61, said she swims a mile each day, rides a road bike and regularly skis.

The survey of Utahns also found that 90 percent of those interviewed agree that older Americans should be protected from age discrimination, just as they are protected from discrimination based race, sex, national origin or religion.

Ninety-four percent of Utahns surveyed said competent workers should be able to stay on the job regardless of their age.

"It's not like we should be put out to pasture and told, 'You're done now.' People want to work longer. They want to be viable," Erickson said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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