Older and Out: Age Discrimination in the Workplace

We’ve witnessed the rise of civil rights, women’s rights, animal rights. Now, with a recession looming, we’re going to get nudged out of our jobs because of age discrimination? We don’t think so. MORE magazine reports.

By Amy Engeler

A Public Apology

Judy Yates says she knows all about unfair assumptions — she was specifically trained to avoid making them. During her 23 years as director of the Pinellas County Extension Office in Largo, Florida, Yates says she attended frequent seminars on employment law given by the county’s human rights division. Good anti-bias training, she learned, acknowledges that everybody uses stereotypes about others to sort out and understand the world. These stereotypes, however, can be unfair or untrue. (Not all older workers are inflexible or computerphobic, for example; not all members of Generation X or Y are tech-savvy.) And operating from those prejudices on the job can run afoul of civil rights laws.

With that in mind, Yates stresses, she made sure to look carefully at each of her employees, noting their individual strengths, skills, education, and interests as she made decisions on hiring, job assignments, and promotions. But according to the complaint she later filed in federal court against the Pinellas County Board of Commissioners, when Yates herself was up for a promotion at age 55, the job went to "a younger person with less seniority and [fewer] qualifications."

When she interviewed for the position, Yates says, her supervisor asked about her retirement plans. She also contends that soon after the other candidate was hired, she heard the woman playfully call the supervisor "Daddy." (When MORE contacted the woman who won the promotion and asked if she’d ever done this, she replied, "Absolutely not. That’s absurd." The supervisor did not return calls for comment.)

Yates filed an age discrimination charge with the EEOC in 2003 but then decided not to pursue the matter, hoping the filing itself might prompt an improvement. But then, according to the complaint in Yates’s suit, two of her supervisors "engaged in a pattern of harassing and retaliatory conduct": Her responsibilities were "taken away or reduced"; "false rumors were spread"; she was told that her job was in jeopardy "because she filed a charge of discrimination"; and she was "threatened with baseless legal action." Yates received no performance evaluation or cost-of-living raise in 2004. On January 19, 2005, she filed a second EEOC charge, this time alleging both age discrimination and retaliation. Her complaint said, in part, that she believed that "after 23 years of excellent service to the county, I will be fired or my duties will continue to be reduced to the point [where] I have no authority to perform my job." Later that month, she was let go. A county official arrived at her office, she says, and told her she had less than two hours to leave the premises; meantime, a sheriff’s deputy waited. "I’d never been terminated in my life until then," Yates adds.

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