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Worker Age Discrimination Complaints on the Rise - 2001-08-03

As the U.S. economy slows and company layoffs mount, older workers are a common target, since they usually earn more money than their younger co-workers. As a result, complaints of age discrimination are on the rise.

Eight times more U.S. workers filed complaints of age discrimination last year than did the year before, and complaints for the first six months of this year are up another 15 percent.

Professor Howard Eglit of Chicago-Kent College of Law says that's because many employers are intentionally laying off older workers first.

"The longer you are on the job, the higher your salary is going to be," he says. "And many employers look at a 55-year-old and say, 'I'm paying this guy a big chunk of money. I can get the same work product out of a 25-year-old for one third of the price!'"

U.S. age discrimination laws forbid employers from firing workers because of their age. But the laws are unclear about where firing higher salaried employees ends and discriminating against older workers begins.

It is usually the courts that are left to decide. That is one reason there have been so many age discrimination lawsuits.

Another reason, says Laurie McCann of the American Association of Retired Persons, is that the baby boomers - the 76 million Americans born after World War II - are entering their later years. Baby boomers, Ms. McCann says, have always been more willing to stand up for their rights than earlier generations.

"They are not willing to just walk away," she says. "I spoke to a woman just the other day who would be in the "boomer" category. She was told she was too old for the job. She filed a charge because she was mad. She was angry. She felt she should not have been treated that way." In fact, Howard Eglit says, that is particularly true of female baby boomers. Over the last 15 years, he says, there has been a 100 percent increase in the number of women filing age discrimination charges. He attributes the increase to rising aspirations.

"Fifty years ago a woman thought her highest aspiration might be to be a secretary, and if they decided to get rid of her, who was she to second guess the male bosses," he asks. "Well, today, thanks to the revolution that began 30 years ago, you are not just fighting to keep a secretarial job. You're fighting to keep your corporate vice president's job."

Mr. Eglit expects a good deal more such fighting in the years to come. There were 15.5 million 55 year olds in 1994, he says. In contrast, by 2005 there will be more than 22 million, and he predicts many more age discrimination complaints.