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The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits any employer from refusing to hire, discharge, or otherwise discriminate against any individual because of age. The act covers compensation, terms, conditions and other privileges of employment including health care benefits. This act specifically prohibits age-based discrimination against employees who are at least 40 years of age. The purpose of the act is to promote the employment of older persons and to prohibit any arbitrary age discrimination in employment.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act became law in 1967 but its roots can be traced back to 1964, when the U.S. government enacted Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This act radically changed working life in the United States. The core of Title VII was to prohibit discrimination in employment based on race, color, sex, national origin, or religion. This statute provided a way for women and minorities, in particular, to challenge barriers that limited equal opportunities in organizations. States adopted similar legislation as well. One variable noticeably missing from Title VII was age discrimination. Three years later, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives enacted the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).
The ADEA covers individuals, partnerships, labor organizations and employment agencies, and corporations that: 1) engage in an industry affecting interstate commerce and 2) employ at least 20 individuals. The act also controls state and local governments. Referrals by an employment agency to a covered employer are within the ADEA's scope regardless of the agency's size. In addition, the ADEA covers labor union practices affecting union members; usually, unions with at least 25 members are covered. The ADEA protects against age discrimination in many employment contexts, including hiring, firing, pay scales, job assignments, and fringe benefits.
Under the act, employers are forbidden to refuse to hire, to discharge, or to discriminate against anyone with respect to the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of a person's age. The act also forbids employers from limiting, segregating, or classifying an individual in a way that adversely affects his or her employment because of age. The act states that all job requirements must be truly job-related and forbids employers to reduce the wage rate of an employee to comply with the act. It forbids seniority systems or benefits plans that call for involuntary requirements due to age and also makes it illegal for employees to indicate any issue related to age in advertisements for job opportunities.
The ADEA was enacted to promote the employment of older persons based on ability rather than age and to help employers and employees find ways to work around problems that arise from the impact of age on employment. As a result, the act authorizes the Secretary of Labor to perform studies and provide information to labor unions, management, and the public about the abilities and needs of older workers and their employment potential and varied contributions to the economy.
The procedural requirements for an ADEA suit are complicated. Before an individual can sue in his/her own right, a private plaintiff must file charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or with an appropriate state agency. The EEOC may also sue to enforce the ADEA. A three-year statute of limitations exists for both government and private suits starting from the date of an alleged willful violation. For cases of nonwillful violations, the statute of limitations is two years from the date of the alleged violation.
The plaintiff does not need to prove that age was the only factor motivating the employer's decision, but must establish that age was one of the determining factors guiding the employer's discriminatory actions. Once the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden of evidence shifts to the employer. The employer must provide a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employee's demotion or discharge. Charges filed and resolved under the ADEA are tracked by the Office of Research, Information, and Planning which gets its data from the EEOC's Charge Data System.
The ADEA allows employers to discharge or otherwise discipline an employee for good cause, and to use reasonable factors other than age in their employment decisions. It also allows employers to observe the terms of a bona fide seniority system, except where such a system is used to require or permit the involuntary retirement of anyone age 40 or over.
In addition, the ADEA provides for a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) defense. In general, an employer seeking to use this defense must show that its age classification is reasonably necessary to the safe and proper performance of the job in question. Specifically, the employer must show either: 1) that it is reasonable to believe that all or most employees of a certain age cannot perform the job safely, or 2) that it is impossible or highly impractical to test employees' abilities to tackle all tasks associated with the job on an individualized basis. For example, an employer that refuses to hire anyone over the age of 60 as a pilot has a potential BFOQ defense if it has a reasonable basis for concluding that 60-and-over pilots pose significant safety risks, or that it is not feasible to test older pilots individually.
Age discrimination cases will be of increasing concern to businesses in the future as the work force in the US and in many developed countries continues to mature. In addition, changes in Social Security laws are pushing up the age at which a person may begin to draw full Social Security benefits and this will cause many more workers to stay on the job until later in life. In Supervision, Mary-Katheryn Zachary warns that plaintiffs in age discrimination cases typically receive more empathy than other discrimination plaintiffs and judges hearing such cases are likely to be in the protected class themselves. Damages can be substantial and may take the form of back pay, front pay, overtime pay, emotional distress pay, liquidated damages, and multipliers for intentional violations of the law. Remedies can also include equitable relief, hiring, reinstatement, and promotion. Employers are cautioned to consider ADEA laws when restructuring the workplace.
Another important issue facing employers in this realm is the legal interpretation of the ADEA as it relates to retirees. Federal court rulings in mid-2000 indicated that under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, employers had to provide the same health care benefits to Medicare-eligible retirees that they do to younger retirees who do not yet qualify for Medicare. Critics of this interpretation within the business world claim that the practical result of such a ruling, if not addressed by Congress, will be a dramatic drop in the percentage of businesses offering comprehensive health care benefits to retired workers.
Amidst a flood of protests from employers and labor organizations, the EEOC reviewed the question of differential health care benefits for retirees of different ages, those under and those over the age of Medicare-eligibility. In 2003 the EEOC proposed a rule to exempt retiree health care plans from the ADEA and adopted the new rule in 2004. The rule was almost immediately challenged in a law suit, brought by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), late in 2004. A initial ruling in the case found in favor of the AARP. However, the ruling was reviewed in light of a mid-2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on another case. According to an article in Business Insurance dated October 3, 2005, Judge Anita Brody of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania "stated last week the EEOC has the authority to implement a rule that would exempt from the Age Discrimination in Employment Act changes to health plans that affect retired workers when they become eligible for Medicare."
This ruling, if it withstands appeal, leaves employers free to provide a two-tiered system of retiree health care coverage, with younger retirees receiving more generous benefits than their older and Medicare-eligible counterparts, without running afoul of the ADEA.
As health care costs rise and the workforce ages with the steady march of the baby boom generation, issues of age discrimination on both ends of the age spectrum are likely to remain an issue of importance for all employers.
"EEOC Rule on Lower Benefits for Retirees Violates the ADEA." HR Focus. May 2005.
Geisel, Jerry. "Court Blocks EEOC Rule Exempting Retiree Health Plans from ADEA." Business Insurance. 4 April 2005.
Geisel, Jerry. "EEOC Can Issue Rule on Retiree Benefits." Business Insurance. 3 October 2005.
Lindemann, Barbara. American Discrimination in Employment Law. January 2003.
Zachary, Mary-Kathryn. "Age Discrimination-Part II: The Private Employee." Supervision. September 2000.
Zachary, Mary-Kathryn. "Age Discrimination-Part I: The State Employee." Supervision. July 2000.
Zall, Milton. "Age Discrimination-What Is It Besides Illegal?" Fleet Equipment. April 2000.
Hillstrom, Northern Lights
updated by Magee, ECDI