Thousands of older workers each year say age discrimination is real

Russell Maisano talks about the relationships he’s forged over the years.
The Clinton Township, Mich., man, who built a career selling cars and then managing others, says it’s the rapport with his customers that keeps them coming back.
That sales wisdom comes from 37 years in the business at a Detroit area car dealership, but Maisano, 59, has been without a job since January when he was fired as he was home battling a rare form of throat cancer.
“I was looking forward to going back to work. It was my whole life,” said Maisano, whose firing prompted an outpouring of support and outrage on Facebook as well as a GoFundMe effort to cover his medical expenses. Maisano, who has sued the dealership, contends the family-owned business wanted to rid the company of its older employees to reduce the cost of insurance premiums. 
Although the details of Maisano's case are unique, claims of work-related age discrimination in the United States are not.
In 2016, the most recent full year available, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 20,857 claims of violations under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. It was the ninth year in a row that the number of claims has exceeded 20,000, with the highest number in 2008 as the effects of the Great Recession began to truly take hold.
In Michigan, the state Department of Civil Rights received 316 employment-related age discrimination complaints last year, a drop from the peak over the last 10 years of 408 in 2014. The state received 3,533 employment-related age discrimination complaints from 2008-17.
Experts say those numbers do not tell the whole story. Some employment law attorneys note that many potential discrimination cases are never reported because employers may offer a severance deal in exchange for giving up future claims involving age or numerous other types of discrimination.
Claims of work-related age discrimination can involve any aspect of employment and can be difficult to prove, according to AARP.
A current federal court lawsuit against Fiat Chrysler Automobiles alleges that the company used an evaluation system adversely affecting older workers. 
That system, according to the suit by current and former employees, used employee photos and other information indicating how long the workers had been with the company in determining bonuses and other factors. 
The company tried to force the case to arbitration, a common venue for age discrimination claims, as well as have it dismissed, but a federal district judge in Detroit issued a ruling late last year allowing the case involving four plaintiffs in their late 50s and early 60s to move forward. The company has denied wrongdoing.

A widespread belief

Older workers say age discrimination is simply a reality.
“Nearly two in three older workers believe that age discrimination exists in the workplace and those who believe so say it is common. Some 16% perceive that employers treat them worse on the job because of their age, up from 12 percent in 2007,” according to results from a 2014 AARP survey.
Rather than going away, work-related age discrimination, say some legal experts, has continued largely unabated even though it is illegal at any age under Michigan's Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act and protections under federal law start at age 40 at employers with 20 or more workers. Much of the reason older workers face discrimination stems from assumptions about their capabilities, especially in an age of ever-evolving technology.
“The ageist stereotypes have grown over time,” said Royal Oak attorney Michael Pitt, who has seen a steady diet of such discrimination cases since he began working in employment law in 1980. “One of the most prevalent is that older employees aren’t as adept as other employees when it comes to digital matters.”
Such attitudes mask the reality that many older workers manage technology just fine, experts say.
“I’d say that’s a stereotype. I think it’s a myth that younger people are better than older people at digital things,” Pitt said, noting that it’s not OK to make similar comparisons when it comes to race.
Attorney James Fett, who also handles employment discrimination cases, said that age discrimination is often paired with other types of discrimination in the workplace. Fett pointed to a series of lawsuits he was involved in several years ago by older, white men citing discrimination in hiring and promotion at the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority, which runs the Metropark system outside of Detroit. Those cases have since settled.
“I have a lot of cases that involve the older, white male. They’re politically incorrect cases,” Fett said.

How it starts

One 69-year-old Detroit-area man, who asked not to be identified because he fears it will affect his ongoing job search, told the Detroit Free Press he came upon a conversation before he lost his job that struck him later as suspicious. A manager had been talking with another employee, marveling at how old the first man was. That story was relayed to him as he passed the office moments later, with a joke that he must have good genes. 
“I said, ‘That’s really odd. What are they doing sitting around in another office talking about (my age)?’” the man said. He said he was let go soon after and lost a claim in arbitration. 
Deborah Gordon, the Michigan attorney who is representing Maisano, said she’s heard terms like “Grandpa” used to describe older workers. “I had one client, (the boss) said, ‘Look you’re getting older, I don’t want to have to carry you out of here,’” Gordon said.
Gordon mentioned another client, a woman in her 80s, who could do “everything” needed from her at the accounting firm where she worked. The woman was simply told, “we’ve got to get somebody younger in here.”
In Maisano's case, the married father of four said he was forced by his employer to take a medical leave in the fall even though he believes he was capable of continuing at his job. He would work in the mornings and travel to Detroit in the afternoons for cancer treatments.
On Jan. 10, Maisano received a letter informing him of his termination, saying he had not provided a return-to-work date, a claim he disputes. 
Now with his cancer in remission, Maisano said he needs to work, both for his financial health as well as his sense of self.
The prospects, though, for replacing his six-figure salary appear remote. Looking for a job at any age can be a challenge, but for older workers, the barriers to getting a resume considered can be even higher.
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