What protections do workers have against age discrimination?

This article looks at laws that prohibit age discrimination at work and how enforcing them can be hard.

American society is getting older, yet age discrimination remains stubbornly persistent and widespread in the workplace. As AARP points out, two thirds of workers aged between 45 and 74 have either been victims of age discrimination or have witnessed age discrimination at work. Furthermore, workers over 35 list age discrimination as one of the main obstacles to finding work. Despite the fact that age discrimination is illegal in every state, many older workers clearly find that their age is used against them when trying to find or hold onto a job.

Laws against age discrimination

As the U.S. Department of Labor points out, two laws specifically prohibit age discrimination in the workplace: the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975. Other regulations also prohibit age discrimination and provide remedies for those who have been victims of such discrimination.

The ADEA is the most important piece of legislation concerning age discrimination in the workplace and it applies to any company that hires 20 or more employees. It prevents employment discrimination against people who are 40 or older.

Why age discrimination lawsuits are tough

Age discrimination is undoubtedly widespread, yet age discrimination lawsuits are notoriously tough to pursue against an employer. As Forbes notes, a 2009 Supreme Court case, Gross v. FBL, put plaintiffs at a disadvantage when proving that age was the motivating factor in an age discrimination case. That case required plaintiffs to meet a higher standard of proof and, according to AARP, it "sent a message to employers that some amount of proven discrimination is legally allowed."

The challenge is that employers will rarely be upfront that the reason an employee is being demoted or fired is because of their age. Instead, employers will often argue that there are legitimate business reasons for letting an employee go or for putting them in a lower position. Proving that an employer was motivated by the employee's age is often extremely difficult. Furthermore, as Forbes shows, older women tend to be particularly disadvantaged by age discrimination, especially women who are looking for a job after having taken some years off to raise their children.

Fighting for workers' rights

The challenges that employees face are serious, but not insurmountable. Laws do exist that protect workers from various forms of discrimination, including age discrimination. An employment law attorney can help employees who may have been victims of discrimination understand what their legal rights are and how they may be able to go about taking action either in or out of court to enforce those rights.