There are several federal laws that address age discrimination in the workplace, not the least of which is the widely known Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This law sets basic rules prohibiting discrimination based on race, gender, color, religion or national origin. Other laws targeting age discrimination include the Older Workers’ Benefit Protection Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The ADEA is an important law that requires a deeper look.
The main provision in the ADEA states that employers can’t discriminate against employees and job candidates who are 40 years of age or older because of their age. This extends to all parts of the employment process, from applications to interviews to hiring and promotions. An employee may not be terminated from a job solely because of his or her age either.
Starting as early in the process as job postings to advertise openings, employers cannot implicitly or explicitly express age-based discrimination. After someone is hired, his or her age cannot play a role in management’s decision to promote, train, discipline, appraise or terminate the employee. Employers may not force older employees to take early retirement or choose to terminate older workers in an attempt to downsize. Health and life insurance benefits may not be reduced for older workers.
If an employee feels as though he or she has been discriminated against because of age, he or she may file a complaint with the employer. No retaliatory action may be taken against the worker if there is a complaint lodged.
Employees who believe they were discriminated against because of their age may have a difficult time proving their case, however. Even when a younger employee is hired to replace an older worker, there are many reasons the employer can cite as to why that decision was made. Older workers must have proof that staffing decisions were made directly as a result of their age and that they were intentional actions.
Most states have their own versions of anti-age discrimination legislation. In many cases, these laws are stricter than the federal ADEA provisions. For example, the ADEA applies only to businesses that have more than 20 employees. The state laws, however, usually drill down further to prohibit age discrimination in all businesses, regardless of the number of workers. It is the employer’s responsibility to be aware of all discrimination laws that pertain to it, regardless of location, because state or city laws might contain other provisions that the federal law doesn’t address.
Waiver of ADEA Rights
There are some circumstances under which an employee might agree to waive his or her ADEA rights. One example would be in exchange for a severance package or other type of compensation for being terminated. However, the employer has to follow a prescribed procedure when offering this arrangement.
The employee must get a clear, written explanation of the terms of the waiver, and that explanation must specifically mention the ADEA. Employees cannot be asked to waive rights they may be due in the future, and they must be encouraged to check with an attorney before signing. The worker has 21 days to consider the offer and seven days to change his or her mind and revoke the agreement.
The federal Workforce Investment Act, specifically Section 188, prohibits discrimination against participants in the Act’s financial assistance program based on age. This applies to applicants and employees alike and usually pertains to federal or state employers that receive federal funding.
The Older Worker’s Benefit Protection Act mentioned above is a federal law barring discrimination due to age in benefit or retirement programs.
Several federal and state laws prohibit discrimination in the workplace based on a worker’s age. Employers are beholden to be knowledgeable about each one that pertains to them.
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