Age discrimination in the workplace

Americans are living longer, healthier lives. One result has been the interest by some to postpone retirement until a later age. Whether out of desire or necessity, some Americans are working beyond the age of 65, the standard retirement benchmark. Federal legislation exists to protect older Americans' right to work.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) is the only federal legislation that addresses age in the work place. It applies to employers, labor unions and employment agencies. The law protects public and private sector employees aged 40 and up.

Private sector employers with at least 20 employees and engaged in industries affecting commerce must comply with ADEA. For labor organizations, the act applies to those that either operate a hiring hall or have at least 25 members.

Age discrimination in the work place occurs when an employer discharges or refuses to hire a person on the basis of age. It is also discrimination for an employer to determine one's compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment on the basis of age. Labor organizations cannot deny or withdraw membership because of age. They also cannot limit, segregate or classify their union rolls by age if that could deprive a member of employment opportunities.

Certain situations do exempt an employer, employment agency, or labor union from the ADEA's provisions. An employment decision may be based on age if: it is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the particular business; or it is in accordance with a bona fide seniority system or employee benefit plan such as a retirement, pension, or insurance plan. Decisions based on good cause or any other reasonable factor other than age are not prohibited by the ADEA. "Other reasonable factor" refers to an element that may accompany age, such as declining health, strength, or diminished competence.

A person who believes he or she is a victim of age discrimination should file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 180 days of the alleged violation. The agency will investigate the complaint at no cost and try to resolve the matter if it determines a violation occurred. If the claimant prefers to pursue the case individually, he or she may request a "right-to sue" letter from the EEOC. The person then has 90 days from receipt of the right-to-sue letter to bring legal action.

Resolution of an age discrimination case can include recovery of unpaid wages or unpaid compensation. The court may double the amount if it finds the violation was intentional. The court also has the discretion to award other equitable relief such as compelling reinstatement or promotion.

Finally, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits involuntary retirement based on age if the employee is performing the job satisfactorily. In addition, no seniority system or benefit plan can require involuntary retirement based on age.