Just How Common Is Age Discrimination?

Race- and sex-based discrimination are such hot topics in the media that one can easily forget that other types of employment discrimination are all too commonplace. While the number of age discrimination cases in the United States is dropping a little bit as the economy improves, the numbers are still shockingly high.

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What Counts as Age Discrimination?

While each individual state may have its own laws regarding age discrimination, the key federal law that protects older workers is the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). This law is designed to protect older workers from discrimination in the workplace based on their age. The group of workers who are protected are those who are age 40 and older. Basically, once that age threshold is met, employers are not allowed to favor younger workers over older workers. So imagine four workers aged 21, 31, 41, and 51. Under the law, an employer could favor the 21-year-old over the 31-year-old, or the 31-year-old over the 21-year-old because of age, and there would be no violation. The employer could favor the 41-year-old over the 31-year-old or 21-year-old, but not the other way around. The 51-year-old could be favored over the other three due to age, but favoring any of the three younger workers over the 51-year-old would be a violation.

Both current employees and prospective employees are covered by the law. This means that if you are already employed, your employer cannot fire you or pass you over for promotions or other benefits due to your age. They are also not allowed to pay you less because of your age. If you are in the job market, employers are not allowed to deny you a position because you are “too old” if you are age 40 or older.

There are exceptions, of course. If you are an executive in a high policy-making position who is entitled to a pension worth a certain amount, your employer might be allowed to set a mandatory retirement age. Additionally, if you work for a very small business with fewer than 20 employees, you may not be covered by the federal law, but state law may still protect you.

How Common Is Age Discrimination?

Time recently reported on a dip in age discrimination cases that is being linked to the improving economy in the United States. Complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have been dropping each year for the last six years. Even though the number of complaints are dropping, there are still a lot of them. In 2014, the EEOC received 20,588 complaints. This is down from a peak of 24,582 in 2008.

This shockingly high number of complaints corresponds with the realities observed by older workers. According to an AARP survey, a whopping 77 percent of Americans between age 45 and 54 say employees face age discrimination. This is particularly problematic because older workers who continue to work (or try to find work) often are most in need of employment. For example, these workers often need the health insurance that employers provide.

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