Fired for Being Old, Workers Say

Sociologists, lawyers, and those who have been dismissed suggest ways to reform the system and to battle back.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT is an anniversary George Washington Gaw would rather not remember: the Friday afternoon last June 9 when he was called into the personnel office and abruptly dismissed from his $71,000 post as senior associate for an architectural firm. ``No reason was given,'' Mr. Gaw recalls, adding that three weeks later he received a letter from the president stating the firing was not Gaw's fault. ``He said business was bad and he had to let me go. But they kept the younger guy who worked under me. They gave him a raise, and he took over a lot of my responsibilities for less than half the salary.''

The experience marked the third time in five years that Gaw, now in his late 50s, had been replaced by a younger worker. In 1985, the Irvine, Calif., international consultant design office where he worked as a vice president appointed a new president - ``a 41-year-old industrial designer who systematically went through the place and got rid of anyone who was 42 or over.''

Then, Gaw says, on his next job at a college of design in southern California, ``the college terminated the president I was working under and put in a 42-year-old as president.'' As a result, a position he had been promised as director of an international school in Europe went to an assistant director who was younger.

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Although Gaw's case may be extreme, it illustrates a growing problem facing workers in their 50s and 60s: unemployment that appears to be the result of age discrimination.

The 1967 federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects workers 40 and over from discrimination based on age. But last year, in Massachusetts alone, the state's Commission Against Discrimination received 600 complaints. This year the agency has already received 500 complaints. And during the past 18 months the New England regional office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has received 806 charges of age discrimination, according to Charles Looney, director.

``The United States and South Africa are the only two Westernized nations where it is legal to fire somebody without just cause,'' says Ellen Messing, an attorney with Shilepsky, Messing & Rudavsky in Boston.

As economic conditions force companies to restructure, employers often face difficult decisions about which employees to keep. For some workers in their 50s, offers of early retirement come as a welcome chance to leave the workplace or change jobs. For others, ``golden handshakes'' appear to be a way to replace older, more highly paid employees with younger, less expensive ones.

Last year a Yankelovich poll of 400 companies identified two obstacles hindering those over 50: lingering questions about their ability to adapt to new technology, and the rising cost of health care.

Again and again during a four-hour public hearing on age discrimination in employment, held earlier this month in Boston's Faneuil Hall, unemployed workers like Gaw offered first-person accounts of being fired in mid-life. In voices struggling to contain anger and bitterness, they told of the shock and humiliation of suddenly being ``out on the street'' after years of work - years often rewarded with merit raises and good performance reviews.

One 57-year-old father of nine, testifying anonymously, explained that after being recruited by a firm, he built a staff and made his department profitable. Then, six months ago, he says, ``I was told I was being replaced by an individual 20 years younger who happens to be the brother of the chairman of the board. He has no experience.''

For Henry Bader, a 16-year employee of Polaroid, where he worked as a research fellow, the first sign of trouble came two weeks after a merit raise. On a performance review, he says, ``I suddenly went from `excellent' to `unsatisfactory.''' Then he was urged to accept a voluntary severance plan. ``At that moment my whole world collapsed. Nothing I had done in my life had any meaning. I was replaced by a younger man.''

Mr. Bader sued, and just before the case went to trial he received a settlement. Although he found another job, he has been working for the last two-and-a-half years ``at one-tenth of my former salary.''

Similarly, Kathleen Cole's firing in 1983 at the age of 54 occurred after 20 years with Harvard University. ``I was known as the best payroll officer in the university,'' she says. ``They said it was a reorganization, but they put a younger girl in my position. Then they sent me a letter saying that since I had decided to retire early, my pension would be cut from $1,100 a month to $350.'' Ms. Cole sued the university in 1984. Her suit is now in appeals.

According to Frederick Golder, an attorney with Bernstein, Golder, Fields & Miller in Boston, only about one employee in 10 benefits from a lawsuit. ``The only one who certainly benefits is the lawyer representing the company,'' he adds.

Even so, employment experts encourage older workers who think they have been unfairly dismissed to file complaints with government and state agencies.

``If you're over 40, have been subject to an adverse employment situation, and you do not believe a younger employee has been subject to the same employment situation, that's all it takes,'' says Mr. Looney. ``We don't have to take most people to court - companies don't want their name dragged through the papers.''

For Gloria Van Dever, who was laid off early this year as a personnel administrator for a high-tech firm, outside intervention proved unnecessary. When she discovered her severance package left her four months shy of her fifth anniversary with the company - the date her pension would be vested - Ms. Van Dever wrote a carefully reasoned, five-page letter to the new head of the company, explaining the situation. In response, he called her. ``He said the company would hold me over until vesting,'' she says.

Another possible solution offered at the hearing, which was sponsored by the Gray Panthers and 30 other organizations, includes setting up grievance boards and using arbitration. ``We have to think about getting outside the court system,'' says Harry Brill, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts. ``We need committees to act as a watchdog.'' Organizing unions and groups of employees to pressure companies can also be effective, according to panelists.

Still others suggest more positive approaches. ``Create a tax incentive,'' says Mr. Golder, the attorney. ``Tell companies, `Hire somebody over 40 and you get a tax incentive.'''

But tax incentives and fines will never get to the root of age discrimination. Noting the importance of education to change attitudes, Kathleen Allen, commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, says, ``People need to look at older workers affirmatively.''

Even the comment that a job-seeker is ``overqualified'' can be a veiled sign of age discrimination. As Sally Dunaway of the American Association of Retired Persons says, ``If someone tells you you have too much experience, who has the most experience? Older people.''

Meanwhile, for Gaw and others who have been laid off, the search for work continues. ``I could paper the walls of a room with rejection letters,'' says Gaw, the recipient of more than 40 awards honoring his work in fields from education to design. Next month he will travel to Austria to speak to the government about setting up educational programs for groups of people who are ``senior and unemployed.''

To employers, Gaw offers this advice: ``You are wasting your most valuable resource through fear and ignorance. It's time to open the door and let in the light. If people are willing and able to work, let them work.''

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