Complaints involving age bias are growing fast, EEOC says

They are outstripping other bias categories

July 14, 2002|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

The number of age-discrimination complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has risen 23.5 percent in the past two years - the fastest-growing category of discrimination cases.

The number of complaints tends to rise as the number of layoffs increases, said Paul Boymel, an EEOC senior attorney who specializes in age discrimination.

While age-discrimination laws also cover hiring and promotions, the majority of the cases filed have to do with unfair termination practices.

In 1999, 14,141 complaints were filed. Two years later, the number increased to 17,405 for a fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, a few weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 kicked a sputtering economy into a crisis of layoffs.

Peak in 1993

The last significant increase began in 1991, rising to its height of 19,809 claims in 1993.

"Age charges went up significantly at that time, and then started declining as the economy picked up," Boymel said.

The main law governing the cases is the 1967 federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which applies to workers who are age 40 and older. That group numbers 67.5 million, said Ron Bird, an economist with the Employment Policy Foundation in Washington.

Boymel said that for the most part, employers are learning how to lay off workers in a way that averts litigation, and employees are gaining a more realistic understanding of what will fly in court. "The cases are self-selecting," he said.

Honeywell International Inc., a 100,000-employee global aerospace company based in Morristown, N.J., acquired an age-discrimination headache along with its 1999 acquisition of the former AlliedSignal Automotive Aftermarket, the maker of Prestone and other automotive products.

On June 6, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Philadelphia office filed a lawsuit against Honeywell, seeking class-action status. The suit said AlliedSignal had unfairly terminated and demoted at least 50 older workers during a 1997 reorganization. The suit, filed in federal court in New Jersey, is pending.

To illustrate AlliedSignal's alleged age bias, the suit quotes Allied's president at the time as saying: "Anybody over 40 is a dinosaur. ... We are going to terminate those types and replace them with people like myself."

The former official was not named as a defendant in the suit and no longer works for Honeywell.

`Great care'

"AlliedSignal took great care in the automotive aftermarket restructuring, and we're confident there was no discrimination against these or any other individuals during the restructuring," Honeywell spokesman Tom Crane said recently.

Michael McGinn, Executive Transition Group Inc. chief executive officer and a former priest who has not only laid off people but also found jobs for them in his career as an outplacement manager, said companies that are shrinking plot layoff strategies carefully.

They typically create a matrix listing each person's age, race and gender, making sure the layoffs are carefully spread among those categories, he said.

Sometimes, part of the goal of a mass layoff is to get rid of unproductive workers. If one happens to be in his 50s, the company will probably include another 50-year-old in the matrix just to make sure the unproductive worker can't sue for age discrimination, McGinn said.

Strategic waivers

To prevent litigation, more and more employers are incorporating waivers into their layoff strategies, Boymel said.

Employers who voluntarily offer severance packages during mass layoffs often require older employees to sign a waiver promising not to sue for age discrimination, in order to get the severance pay and other help, such as outplacement counseling.

"It must be voluntary," Boymel said. "You can't make their last salary check dependent on signing the waiver."

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