Monday, January 26, 2009

Reverse age discrimination should not be a concern in layoffs

Last week, BusinessWeek ran the following headline: Employers Avoid Axing Oldies but Goodies. The crux of the story is that the current wave of layoffs is hitting younger employees much harder than in the past. Seniority is being protected because of legal concerns in laying off the over-40 set, and because of the need to keep experienced people in place to help navigate these difficult times. According to the article, hard numbers back this trend:

  • Unemployment claims for those 55 and older jumped to 4.9% in December 2008, a 1.8% rise over the prior year.
  • In contrast, for those aged 25-54 the rate climbed to 6.3% in December, a 2.3% jump from December 2007.
  • Meanwhile, there are 2.8 million less people ages 25-54 employed in December 2008 as compared to December 2007.
  • In contrast, there are 878,000 more employees age 55 and over employed this year as compared to last year.

Yet, the article ends with the following word of caution:

Still, companies must tread carefully to avoid showing favoritism based on age. They could wind up facing reverse-discrimination suits from younger workers who feel targeted.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In General Dynamics Land Systems v. Cline (2004), the U.S. Supreme Court conclusively ended the debate over whether one can bring a claim for reverse age discrimination. In that case, the employer provided retiree health benefits only to those people who were over age 50. 196 employees ages 40-49 claimed that since the contract expressly excluded employees between the ages of 40 and 49, providing benefits only to retirees 50 and over was illegal age discrimination. Thus, the Court was asked to decided if the ADEA prohibits “reverse discrimination” against workers over 40 by providing greater benefits to workers over 50 than to younger workers who are still over 40.

The Court rejected the notion of “reverse age discrimination.” The ADEA’s “text, structure, purpose, history, and relationship to other federal statutes show that the statute does not mean to stop an employer from favoring an older employee over a younger one.” According to the Court, the ADEA is “a remedy for unfair preference based on relative youth, leaving complaints of the relatively young outside the statutory concern.”

In structuring any layoff, it is always wise to verify that the affected group does not contain a disproportionate percentage of “protected group” employees. In conducting that analysis, though, one should not be concerned about whether the layoff disproportionately favors older workers over younger workers.