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Legal Protection

Older workers have legal protection from age discrimination. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was passed by Congress in 1967. The ADEA extends the law as spelled out in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, creed, color, religion, or ethnic origin. (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is important to older workers who could suffer discrimination based on any of those factors as well.) Under the ADEA, workers age 40 and above are protected from discrimination in recruitment, hiring, training, promotions, pay and benefits, dismissal and layoffs, and retirement. The Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA), passed in 1990, guarantees protection against discrimination in benefits packages. For example, OWPBA sets strict guidelines prohibiting companies from converting their pension plans in a way that would provide fewer pension dollars to older workers.

While the ADEA has been a critical factor in guarding against age discrimination, certain decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court have made it somewhat less effective. Part of the reason is that the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which amended Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, did not similarly amend the ADEA. Thus, although Title VII allows victims to recover compensatory and punitive damages since the 1991 amendment, the ADEA does not. Recent Supreme Court actions have suggested that using pension eligibility or high salaries as a basis for layoff decisions (a practice that generally has the greatest impact on older workers) may not be discriminatory.

In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled in Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents that states are protected from ADEA suits by individuals. Legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2001 that would require states agencies to waive their immunity from ADEA suits or else forfeit federal funding.

Most ADEA suits are based on charges brought before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is responsible for investigating charges of age discrimination and seeking remedies. Rarely does it file actual lawsuits (in fact EEOC litigation across the board dropped through the 1990s and into the twenty-first century), but individuals are allowed to sue on their own.

In 1995 the EEOC conducted a comprehensive review of its procedures and developed new National and Local Enforcement Plans. These plans provide guidelines for dealing with discrimination issues against older workers.

The EEOC has long suffered from inadequate funding, which limits its ability to investigate charges as quickly as it would like. As a result, EEOC chooses its lawsuits carefully to ensure maximum impact.

Inside Legal Protection