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Political Solutions Needed for Age Bias in the Workplace

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En español | It’s no secret: One of the best ways for older adults to stay financially secure is to keep earning money in the workplace.

And income is not the only reward that jobs may offer. Many people gain satisfaction from interacting with their colleagues, along with a sense of purpose that comes with using skills they have developed over many years. The contributions of experienced workers boost the entire U.S. economy.

Yet far too often, longtime employees run into a barrier that puts these benefits out of reach: age discrimination. At AARP, we recognize how harmful and pervasive age discrimination really is. Among workers age 40-plus, more than six in 10 – 64 percent – have witnessed or experienced age discrimination in the workplace, our research shows.

That is why AARP is fighting to ensure that all workers are treated fairly and assessed by their qualifications and experience, not their age. Experienced workers should have a level playing field in their ability to compete for, obtain, and remain in their jobs.

It’s just plain common sense, really. Yet rooting out prejudiced attitudes that harm older adults will require action on multiple fronts. Improvements in federal law stands out as one crucial area, and we urge lawmakers to step up and make fighting age discrimination the priority it should be in our aging society.

As a starting point, Congress should move forward with several important measures designed to ensure older adults who wish to remain – and thrive – in the workplace can do so for as long as they want or need to.

The Protecting Older Americans Act would ensure older workers have the same rights as many of their peers if they believe they have been victims of age discrimination. Currently, employers may require that workers agree to binding arbitration, a practice that prevents them from seeking redress in court. This bill has bipartisan support and is sponsored by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Dick Durbin (D-IL); and Representative Nancy Mace (R-SC) in the House. 
The Stronger Workforce for America Act, sponsored by Reps. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and Bobby Scott (D-VA), updates current law to support skills development for workers. Access to training can be extremely valuable to older employees who wish to stay competitive at a time when technology is reshaping many job duties and creating a need for new skills in the workplace.
The Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA) would enhance the ability of older adults to hold employers who discriminate against them for their age accountable. This legislation is needed to rectify a 2009 Supreme Court decision that created an excessively tough standard of proof for victims of age bias to win in court. This bill has been sponsored in the House by Representatives Bobby Scott (who is the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce) and Glenn Grothman (R-WI); and in the Senate by Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Charles Grassley (R-IA). 
The Protecting Older Job Applicants Act. This legislation would modify the Age Discrimination in Employment Act to explicitly include older job applicants who are often discriminated against when they are applying for new employment. It is sponsored by Representative Sylvia Garcia (D-TX), Maria Salazar (R-FL), as well as by Representatives Bobby Scott and Jay Obernolte (R-CA).
As you can see, these proposals command bipartisan support and deserve to move through the legislative process this year. Sadly, despite strong leadership by the bill authors, some have been in political limbo for years. It’s time to pursue these important goals with the urgency they deserve.

In addition to the above bills, AARP is encouraging lawmakers to restrict the use of age-related data in the hiring process. Information, such as when a person graduated college or first applied for a job, has become increasingly available on the internet. Too often, such personal details are being used to guess applicants’ ages and screen out older job seekers.

Yet society is better off when applicants are judged on their qualifications and character. Stereotypes about aging cannot accurately predict an individual’s job performance.

Indeed, employers who assess job applicants fairly and on their merits reap rewards. Experienced workers can offer a strong work ethic, social maturity, perspective, and expertise that strengthen their companies. They have had years to sharpen their skills and absorb lessons of life including how to fit smoothly into organizations. They can serve as mentors to younger colleagues and participate in intergenerational work teams where people of different ages learn from each other.

Failure to recognize the value of experience comes with a price – not just to individual workers but to the whole economy. Several years ago, AARP researchers found that age discrimination was costing the United States $850 billion a year and projected that the cost would soar to $3.9 trillion by 2050.

That gives our whole society a stake in dealing with this challenge. And, to be sure, there is some movement in the right direction.

Colorado and Delaware have passed legislation that bans employers from seeking age-related information such as dates of birth or graduation in the hiring and recruiting process. New Jersey has approved an anti-age-discrimination law that, among other things, limits the state’s ability to require mandatory retirement of its employees. Oregon and Connecticut have also taken steps to support older workers.

We also know that some employers understand the benefits of experience and maintaining an age-diverse workforce. For all the tasks being taken up by automation, there remains a demand for the human skills and know-how that technology cannot provide. Workers who have mastered their jobs over the years help fill this need.

A growing number of thoughtful employers recognize this. Since 2012, more than 2,500 companies have signed on to AARP’s Employer Pledge Program, in which organizations commit to the goal of supporting an age-diverse workforce and agree to our careful vetting process.

Of course, not everyone wants to keep working forever. Not everyone has the health, desire or financial need to remain in the workforce as they age. But for millions of older Americans, staying on the job remains a critical goal.

My message to these workers: AARP will use our influence and expertise to fight age discrimination and make sure employers are more aware of your value. Age discrimination in the workplace, like any other kind of discrimination, is wrong. We are committed to fighting against it.

Congress now has several pieces of legislation that can help. We urge members to move them forward.

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