The Age Discrimination in Employment Act is the most notable example of a federal law designed to protect individuals from unfair treatment at work. It also applies during various pre-hiring stages, such as the advertisement of open positions, as well as the application and hiring processes. This act applies to all companies with 20 or more employees and protects against several different means of age discrimination.
In addition to hiring and compensation decisions, employers also may not discriminate via negative performance evaluations, unwarranted disciplinary action, unfavorable work assignments or forced retirement. Health and life insurance benefits cannot be reduced or removed, nor older workers purged via downsizing efforts. Note that the law does provide for instances wherein employers are permitted to offer lesser benefits to older workers, provided the cost is equal to that paid for benefits for younger workers (e.g. health care).
Age discrimination does not always target one individual, and it does not always manifest itself in a direct manner. Often, it is the creation of a hostile work environment that qualifies as discrimination, such as the prevalence of severe or continuing harassment against certain employees. Company policies that serve to impact older workers negatively might also be considered grounds for valid complaints.
There are other examples of practices that may be considered discriminatory. Requesting an applicant’s date of birth, year of graduation or other such revelatory information during the job interview process is typically a violation of anti-discrimination laws. The same can be true for placing age limitations on apprentice programs, unless first granted an exception by the appropriate agency.
Even if a company does employ 20 or more workers, there are still exceptions to the ADEA that can apply in certain circumstances. For instance, if promotions or incentives are granted based on what is deemed to be a legitimate system of seniority, claims of age discrimination may not be applicable. This is also true if a candidate displays genuine limitations, or if other reasonable factors exist, such as a notable absence of required skills or education for a specific position.
Role of EEOC
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the agency that receives complaints of discrimination in the workplace. In response to such complaints, the EEOC files what are called charges, or cases that are then investigated for further evidence. It may attempt to obtain such evidence by conducting personnel interviews and by requesting documents or information from an employer.
Upon completion of an investigation, the EEOC’s findings are reviewed with the appropriate parties (employer or charging employee). Should the agency be unable to influence a settlement between the two, it is empowered to offer mediation as an alternative. If this form of intervention does not prove successful, the charge returns to the investigative stage. At any point, if the EEOC is able to determine that no anti-discrimination laws have been violated, the charge will be dismissed.
Any person who believes he or she has been the target of discrimination may file a claim under federal law, state or both. States’ agencies require applicable complaints to be filed within 300 days, whereas claims made under the ADEA must be submitted within 180 days of a discriminatory incident. The ADEA also protects workers who file complaints, as well as those who testify or otherwise participate in any complaint made against an employer.
In instances where evidence of discrimination is found, the EEOC will submit a letter outlining their determinations and attempt to develop a solution with the employer in question. If the agency is unable to facilitate a solution, it may proceed to file suit on behalf of the charging party in federal court. Alternatively, the EEOC can choose to close the case, issuing to the charging party a Notice of Right to Sue. This permits the individual to file a lawsuit on his or her own behalf within the following 90 days.
For employers in need of legal assistance or advice related to ADEA compliance, it is advisable to seek counsel from a qualified employment attorney.
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