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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. Why sell someone just one car, when you can sell them 10 over the years? he asks.
That sales wisdom comes from 37 years in the business at a Macomb County, Mich., 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 percent 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, Mich., 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 of Pinckney, Mich., 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, said 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 Bloomfield Hills, Mich., 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.
To the management of Sterling Heights Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram, Maisano’s claims ring hollow.
Anthony Viviano, who owned the dealership for decades until last year but remains involved in his family’s business, referred to the case as “wrong,” noting that there are a “ton of people who are older than” Maisano.
Viviano, who said he is personally hurt by the situation in part because he trained Maisano, would not offer details about the firing, saying he’s not supposed to talk about the case, but that the truth would be a “shocker.”
“I just feel sorry that the guy’s got what he has and it’s just a sad thing, and I attribute maybe some of these thoughts to the illness,” Viviano said, noting that he will be 86 in June so age is not an issue for him.
Gordon, who is representing Maisano in a federal lawsuit against the dealership and its management alleging violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act (a complaint alleging age discrimination has also been filed with the EEOC), said “there is no shocker – just some desperation on the part of Viviano.”
She said Maisano has an excellent record with his company, and there’s only one main reason Maisano was fired: “It’s his age.”
Pitt, the Royal Oak attorney, said discrimination cases often develop when someone who was previously considered a good employee starts having a different experience at work.
It might be “long-term employees who are suddenly challenged with regard to their performance. They may have a long history of good performance,” Pitt said. “I usually tell them (when they call) they’re being set up for termination and call me when it happens. I almost always get the call back.”
He said that after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission receives a discrimination complaint, the commission typically lets the employer respond and then the complainant will receive a right-to-sue letter.
The commission “can bring an action against the employer, and they will do so if there’s sort of a systemic abuse of employment practice,” Pitt said.
Pitt, who is one of the attorneys involved in the case against Fiat Chrysler, said age discrimination cases have been a significant part of his portfolio since he began working in employment law in 1980.
Age discrimination concerns are also not limited to any particular industries.
IMDb, a website that posts movie and actor information, won a ruling in federal court in February over a California law that would have forced the site to take down actor age information upon request.
SAG-AFTRA, a union of actors and media professionals, criticized the ruling, saying that “the court unfortunately fails to understand or recognize the massive impact gender and age discrimination has on all working performers.”
The judge, however, said the law violates the First Amendment because it would prevent the posting of factual information.
That case gets at the concern from older workers and their advocates that employers will disregard potential candidates simply because of their age.
Patrick Button, an assistant economics professor at Tulane University, was part of a research project last year that looked at callback rates from resumes in various entry-level jobs. He said women seeking the positions appeared to be most affected.
“Based on over 40,000 job applications, we find robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring against older women, especially those near retirement age, but considerably less evidence of age discrimination against men,” according to an abstract of the study.
Michael Whitty, a retired professor from the University of Detroit Mercy who has taught courses on employment law, pointed to cultural beliefs that undervalue experience and prize youth. He believes that is reinforced in part by generational segregation.
“There is a youth fascination. Experience is highly discounted over (age) 40 unless you’re a plumber or electrician,” Whitty said. “Age discrimination is pretty widespread because it’s pretty baked into cultural bias, probably more so than sex or race.”
In the tech industry in particular, where the age of workers tends skew younger, the impact could be stark.
Jacquelyn James, co-director of the Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, said age discrimination in employment is a crucial issue in part because of societal changes that are forcing people to delay retirement. Moves away from defined-benefit pension plans to less assured forms of retirement savings are part of the reason.
James pointed to an annual Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies survey, which found that more than half of workers, most citing financial-related reasons, “expect to retire after age 65 or do not plan to retire, and 56 percent plan to continue working at least part-time in retirement.”
James said she believes that the biases that help lead to age discrimination will be difficult if not impossible to fully end, so efforts should be made to keep biases out of hiring in the first place. Experts say hiring processes are often designed to weed out older workers.
Author Brigette Hyacinth wrote recently on the LinkedIn social media site of her frustration over the many emails she receives from older job candidates who are regularly told they are “overqualified” for positions. One woman told Hyacinth she is 55 with a master’s degree and 25 years of experience and cannot get a job in management.
“Every day, I see exceptional talent going to waste because of age discrimination, and it seems to be getting worse. The applicant tracking systems are set to reject such applications. I remember one company letting go of their older workers then complaining of low productivity and high turnover,” Hyacinth wrote.
Job fairs often target only recent college graduates or students approaching graduation, so changing or expanding that type of outreach to be more inclusive can help older workers make connections they might otherwise miss, James said.
James noted that some companies recognize the benefits of retaining older workers, such as maintaining hard-to-replicate experience. She pointed to a BMW plant in Dingolfing, Germany, which includes equipment designed to better accommodate the physical needs of older workers.
Because of financial considerations, some form of work may be a necessary and even a desired part of retirement in the future. James noted the challenge of planning for retirement when people are living longer. She said her mother will turn 100 in May and has been living on a teacher’s pension for decades.
“The biggest thing is developing a system for people to negotiate the terms of their work,” such as by allowing optional part-time employment, James said, noting that such opportunities help even younger workers. “People at all phases (of their lives) need some flexibility.”
Tips for dealing with work-related age discrimination
Know your rights and let your supervisor know that you do if you suspect age discrimination. The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects against discrimination for those 40 and older “in every aspect of the employment relationship.” It applies to employers with 20 or more employees. Be aware of time limitations for filing complaints or charges.
Keep a record of age-related statements or incidents that suggest you are being treated unfairly because of your age.
Talk to your manager about your concerns or file an internal grievance.
If you lost your job in a group termination or layoff, consider joining forces with other affected colleagues. You can share costs and it strengthens your negotiating position.
(Source: Condensed and edited from AARP)
What to do
If you think you are the victim of age and other forms of discrimination, you can contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:
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