Ageism Still Exists, Despite the Law

Bebe Nicholson

“I want you to hire young people,” she said. “People who are vibrant, attractive and sharp.”

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Teachers over 55 face a dilemma. Should they return to the classroom, since they fall in an age group most at risk from Covid-19, or should they stay home until a vaccine or a cure is available?

This is a legitimate concern, and teachers are having to make the hard call about whether to go back to work as more schools move from virtual to classroom learning.

Concern about health vulnerabilities doesn’t equate to ageism, but using the pandemic as an excuse to get rid of older workers does.

The Pandemic as an Excuse

It’s one thing for people to conclude they’re at a vulnerable age and decide to avoid a risky environment. It is another thing entirely for employers to decide all people of a certain age should be fired.

A conversation last week showed me how real this kind of ageism is. I was talking to the person who replaced me after I retired from my job as a business manager. The new manager told me her boss wasn’t allowing any of the older workers to keep their jobs.

By the time I retired, I had assembled a great team of part-time employees. Sales at our small business had skyrocketed from $180,000 to $1.3 million a year.

My employees were, for the most part, older workers who already received health insurance and retirement benefits from earlier careers.

They were a diverse group that included a Muslim, several Christians, some non-church goers, Blacks, Whites, and Latinos. And they all had several things in common. They wanted to do something productive, they liked earning a little extra money, and they were proud to be part of the team.

They were reliable, enthusiastic, and smart, and they enjoyed the flexibility.

I had a policy that if somebody couldn’t work, they arranged with one of the other employees to come in. As long as they got another employee to cover their shift, I didn’t care how much time they took off.

My Attempt to Hire Younger Employees

On a couple of different occasions, I tried hiring younger employees. One 18-year-old didn’t show up for work and didn’t call to let me know he wasn’t coming. The second time this happened, I fired him.

His response to being fired? “That’s not fair! My car wouldn’t start!”

When I said he should have gotten someone else on the team to take his shift, he said, “I lost all their phone numbers.”

The second young person I hired, then fired, kept taking two-hour lunch breaks with her boyfriend. She returned to work rumpled, face flushed, buttons undone, while everybody else had to shorten their lunch breaks and scramble to cover for her.

I’m not saying younger workers are less responsible, but in a job like this, with low pay and no upward mobility, I could not seem to find high quality, hard-working young people.

My older employees weren’t into upward mobility. They weren’t starting out in their careers. They loved being among other people and earning a little extra money.

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When I retired, the person who replaced me kept my old team intact. Business did fine for a while. Then the CEO retired, a new CEO came on board, and coronavirus arrived. The store closed and part-time employees were furloughed.

Now, five months later, the store is set to re-open and the CEO has issued this order: none of the older workers are to be rehired.

“I want you to hire young people,” she said. “People who are vibrant, attractive and sharp.”

“She’s using the coronavirus as an excuse,” the manager told me. “She was pushing me to get rid of the older workers before the pandemic ever started.”

How many other business executives will use these times as an excuse to unload older workers? An executive can say, We are trying to protect the vulnerable. We don’t want them to get sick.

Yet, some protections against Covid-19 are already in place. Most stores require masks. Capacity is being monitored so stores aren’t overcrowded.

Why not let older workers decide if they want to take the risk and return to work? Isolation, loneliness, and boredom can also take a health toll.

Laying Off Older Workers

Ageism has always existed, despite age discrimination laws. In big companies, older, more expensive workers are laid off so they can be replaced with younger, less expensive workers.

I remember when Circuit City laid off its older workers in 2007.

In a move to slash worker compensation costs, the electronics retailer announced that 3,400 in-store employees, 9 percent of the company’s workforce, would be fired. The company specifically targeted experienced workers because after years on the job they had accumulated relatively higher wages.

This didn’t appear to be a smart move, because in 2009, Circuit City declared bankruptcy.

Getting rid of the older workers at my former workplace might not be a smart move, either. The current manager told me she had only received one application from the “appropriate age group,” and she needs to hire 10 people to replace her furloughed workers.

“They all want to return to work,” she said. “But I’m not allowed to hire them back.”

I suspect it isn’t legal for the business to fire all the furloughed workers because of their age. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has warned employers they can’t prevent older workers from returning to work even if they want to protect such workers from the effects of COVID-19.

Given that ageism existed before the pandemic, these times might present a prime opportunity for businesses to ditch their older workers.

Be Aware of Your Rights

Employees who want to return to work need to be aware of their rights and familiarize themselves with the law. Age discrimination is against the law, but employers can find a lot of ways to avoid compliance, especially when they cite concern for worker health and safety.

A half-century has passed since the federal government enacted a law designed to protect workers from employment discrimination based on age, yet one large study on age discrimination in hiring found that the problem persists, and it’s worse for women than for men.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 58% of adults believe age discrimination for older workers happens around the age of 50 while 64% of employees say they have witnessed or experienced age discrimination in the workplace.

One highly qualified 55-year-old friend of mine was passed over by every company she applied to, despite her many career successes. Each company ultimately hired applicants in their thirties.

“I felt like they were counting all my gray hairs during the interview. They almost came out and said, A person your age doesn’t fit in with our company culture,” she said.

Older workers should know their rights. According to AARP, employers should be aware that they cannot: discuss age or specify that a particular age is preferred in job ads and recruiting materials; establish age limits for training programs; retaliate against employees if they file age discrimination claims or assist with age discrimination investigations; or force an employee to retire at a certain age (except for certain exceptions).

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I've worked as editor, newspaper reporter, freelance writer, and book publisher. My writing includes lifestyle, humor, travel, relationship, family, politics, faith and health articles, along with three published books. In my various careers, I've been a journalist, retail manager, nonprofit director, flight attendant, freelancer and mom. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook and Medium.

Alpharetta, GA
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