YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Age Discrimination Hits Close to Home for Baby Boomers

Jobs: Employment bias is the fastest-growing category of complaints, the EEOC says.


NEW YORK — Ron Heater was laid off about two years ago. Despite mailing and hand delivering "hundreds and hundreds of resumes," he says, he still hasn't landed a new job.

Heater believes his age--he's 49--might be part of the problem.

"Most of the time, companies don't even acknowledge my resume was received, or the interviewers are cold and unreceptive," said Heater, a specialist in credit card fraud detection. "I really believe they're looking for the 20- to 25-year-olds who can hold down the fort for quite a bit less money."

Age discrimination in both hiring and firing appears to be a growing problem for baby boomers, most of whom are now in their 40s and 50s, despite the protections of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act that dates to 1967.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces the law, said age discrimination is the fastest-growing category of complaints it receives, with 17,405 filings last year. Complaints about discrimination involving disabilities grew at the second-fastest rate.

Laurie McCann, an attorney specializing in age discrimination at the AARP in Washington, said complaints often rise when the economy is weak, as it has been for the last year.

"Companies that need to cut back may target older workers because they believe they'll get more savings because older workers earn more," she said. "They don't take into account what they lose in institutional memory and skills."

She added that "baby boomers are the type of people more likely to stand up and challenge if they're wronged."

Late last year, the AARP helped win an agreement from Ford Motor Co. to revise a management evaluation system that older, white workers alleged was unfairly singling them out for demotion or firing. Ford agreed to pay $10.5 million to settle two class-action suits, although it denied wrongdoing.

Allstate Insurance, meanwhile, is fighting a suit brought by the EEOC that accuses the Northbrook, Ill., company of illegally converting thousands of agents to private contractors, eliminating such benefits as health insurance and office allowances. The AARP is co-counsel in the case.

Lisa Guerin, an employment specialist at legal publisher Nolo in Berkeley, says workers who believe they're being unfairly treated should keep careful records that can be the basis of a complaint.

"Listen for comments by the people who make decisions to lay workers off, like, 'We're looking for a more energetic group of employees,' " she said. "Compare the stated reasons for layoffs with who actually got laid off. Keep track of dates, places, witnesses."

Guerin pointed out that there are fewer cases involving hiring because evidence often is hard to come by.

"When you're looking for a job, you don't know the other people the company had to choose from," she said. "Unless someone makes a blatantly biased comment during an interview or a company runs an ad with something like 'looking for young, dynamic workers,' it's very hard to prove a case."

Still, baby boomers are going to court with hiring cases.

More than 200 screenwriters have filed suit against 23 television networks, studios and talent agencies, alleging that they're not getting jobs because of their age.

"There is a perceived notion in the industry that writers who are older can't write for younger audiences," said lead attorney Paul Sprenger of Washington, D.C. "That's wrong, and we want to prevent that going forward."

Among the plaintiffs is Mollie Levy, 49, a New York comedy writer.

"I'm irate," Levy said. "This has been going on for a very long time. . . . You see quotes in publications all the time, like, 'How can a 54-year-old writer write for Jennifer Aniston?' By that reasoning, how could an adult have written 'Little House on the Prairie?' "

Rather than going to court, some baby boomers are forming support groups.

Heater has joined one such group, 40 Plus of Greater Washington, which runs training classes to help older professional workers better prepare and market themselves.

Cal Gilbert, a retired military logistics and transportation expert who heads 40 Plus, believes his group can help older job seekers put their problems in perspective.

"You can get righteously indignant, which doesn't seem to help much," he said. "You can get confrontational, which seems to help even less. You can get depressed and allow yourself to become isolated. Or you can plug on and find a place where your maturity and skills are appreciated for what they are."

40 Plus urges members to write resumes that emphasize their accomplishments and skills and de-emphasize their ages.

"You don't want an employer to see the year you graduated from college at the top," Gilbert said. "You might even leave that out--and leave out the jobs and the dates of the jobs that were a long time ago."

Los Angeles Times Articles