The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) probably covers more people in the workplace than any other law. Therefore, both employers and employees should have a basic understanding of this important piece of legislation. Passed in 1967, the ADEA prohibits an employer from taking negative action against an employee because of that employee’s age. The law only applies to those 40 and older; therefore, a 25-year old could not bring a lawsuit under the ADEA claiming discrimination based on his youth.
The ADEA seeks to prohibit employers from making false assumptions about an employee due to that employee’s age. Therefore, statements like, “We don’t hire employees over 55 years old,” will almost certainly violate the Act. Courts apply the Act broadly, prohibiting age discrimination against an employee or prospective employee in hiring, firing, promotions, layoffs, pay, or anything else affecting the workplace. This means that, in most cases, mandatory retirement policies or denial of benefits to older workers is prohibited.
There are, however, some exceptions. First, the Act only applies to employers with at least 20 employees. Second, the Act does not prohibit age discrimination if an employee’s age is a “bona fide occupational requirement.” This means that if older people may have more difficulty performing a particular occupation (like those involving heavy physical labor, like firefighting), it will not be a violation of the ADEA to only hire younger employees. Moreover, the ADEA does not prohibit mandatory retirement programs in certain tenured professions, like college professors.
Furthermore, the ADEA does not require an employer to treat an older employee more favorably. If an older employee lacks the skills of a younger person to perform a particular job, it is not a violation to hire the younger employee. The ADEA simply forbids an employer from taking negative action against an employee due to his age.
If an employee feels that he has been a victim of age discrimination by his employer, he can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), asking the agency to investigate the complaint. This complaint must be filed within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory conduct. If the EEOC finds that there has been a violation, it can file a lawsuit against the employer for violating the Act. Alternatively, the employee can bring a suit for an ADEA violation on his own without notifying the EEOC. In order to prevail, the employee must show that negative action was taken against him, and this negative action was due to his age. The employer can defend against this claim, however, if he can show that the negative action was not taken because of that employee’s age. If the employee is successful, he is entitled to back pay, reinstatement, and possibly punitive damages if the discrimination was egregious.
Ultimately, every employer should have policies in place to ensure that it doesn't violate the ADEA. Consult an attorney for a review of your employment policies.