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One possible reason for the trend: an aging population. More than 20 percent of workers in the United States, some 33 million, are age 55 and up, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects workers 40 and older from personnel decisions based solely on age in hiring, firing, layoffs, promotions or demotions. The act applies to employers with at least 20 workers. That law was weakened in 2009, advocates say, when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling made it more difficult for workers to prove age discrimination. The court ruled that the burden of proof was now on the worker to show that age was the deciding factor — rather than one of a number of factors, as previously held — in a dismissal, demotion or other adverse action.
Bipartisan legislation introduced last year would restore some protections. The Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act, which AARP strongly supports, would amend and clarify federal antidiscrimination laws.
Older workers say the legislation is needed. In a survey of more than 1,502 older adults, about 64 percent say they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. Of those, 92 percent say it is very or somewhat common, according to the AARP report "Staying Ahead of the Curve."
Grant Morris, a Washington, D.C., employment lawyer, says many companies skirt age-discrimination laws by offering severance pay to ousted older workers, with the condition that they sign waivers releasing the company from liability.
"Everyone faces huge financial pressures when they are discharged from a company," he says, so workers are quick to accept the terms.
Cindy Levering is the volunteer chair of the pension research team at the Society of Actuaries, which conducted a 2013 study that asked recently retired people why they left their jobs.
"People who had retired voluntarily — it turned out it wasn't so voluntary," she says. "They felt they had been pushed out. Some said employers were setting unrealistic goals. Some couldn't do their job because of physical demands, or they didn't feel valued. Not many said they wanted to retire to pursue their dreams or passion."
Even when company practices are challenged, the odds of winning a case aren't great.
"It's so difficult to prove age discrimination that employers are emboldened," says Laurie McCann, a senior attorney with AARP Foundation Litigation. "They think they can get away with it."
Former employer: Quest Diagnostics
Employment length: 26 years
Age at termination: 52
At Quest Diagnostics, one of the largest medical labs in the country, Theresa Seibert's downfall came quickly, she says. Now 57, she'd worked for the New Jersey-based company for almost half her life. "It places you on a pedestal for knowing your stuff," she says.
Then new management changed her sales territory and made it nearly impossible to make money or to reach new quotas, she says. In 2010, she was fired for poor performance and denied severance for her 26 years of service.
How she coped: Seibert sued Quest in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, alleging that her termination was part of a plan to drive out older sales representatives and replace them with younger people who were not required to meet the same standards.
"Quest violated laws by deliberately firing Seibert and about 100 older workers on trumped-up claims of poor performances in order to avoid paying them severance," says Glen Savits, one of her lawyers from the firm Green, Savits and Lenzo in Morristown, N.J. "The pattern was fairly clear. You have to prove these cases circumstantially because no one is stupid enough to say, 'I'm firing you because of your age,' " he says. The suit is pending, and Quest has declined to comment.
Seibert returned to school to study organizational leadership and become more marketable. She's drained half her 401(k) account to pay the bills, which include her college tuition expenses.
She's been without permanent work for three years and counting. "There's no such thing as a retirement in my future," Seibert says.
Former employer: Starz
Employment length: 15 years
Age at termination: 66
Ellen Mednick had just cashed a $14,000 bonus check for wowing her bosses at the Starz movie channel. As the executive director of creative services, she scored a major coup by arranging for actors Harrison Ford and James Caan to do on-air promotions for the network for free.
She was also celebrating an anniversary: 15 years of "kicking butt," as she describes it, and collecting several industry awards for her work. Another notable event soon followed: her termination. In May 2013, Mednick says, she was pushed out the door. Her age was to blame, she says.
"I was really at the top of my game," says Mednick, who lives in Denver. "I'm 67, but I'm full of energy and full of creative talent. I had so much more to contribute."
How she coped: Mednick hired Diane King, a Colorado employment lawyer. King says a suit will be filed this spring against Starz on behalf of Mednick and three other older workers who were let go in what she called a pattern of age discrimination. The company declined to comment.
"They got rid of the oldest person at every department where they had layoffs," King says. "These people were longtime employees, well respected, never written up, got raises and bonuses. These days, there's typically no direct evidence of discrimination because people are too smart for that. But if they're always picking the oldest person, that's a pattern."
Mednick, who supports a disabled adult son, has tapped into her 401(k) savings to help pay bills while looking for work. She also applied for Social Security, which she'd planned on taking later for a bigger payout.
"I've really cut back on my lifestyle," she says. "It's a struggle."
Former employer: Johnson & Johnson
Employment length: 10 years
Age at termination: 59
Paul Oravez was just about to collect a coveted perk for putting in a decade of work at health care giant Johnson & Johnson: retiree medical benefits. Instead, he was let go.
"It's a golden thing to get that," says Oravez, now 64. "I almost made it."
In fact, he would have been eligible long ago for retiree benefits if he had been credited for the eight years he worked for a pharmaceutical company that Johnson & Johnson acquired.
A spokesman declined to comment on former employees' work histories.
"You start wondering if you should bring an age-discrimination suit," says Oravez, who lives in West Chester, Pa. "But the company gives you a severance package, and if you didn't sign papers saying you wouldn't bring a suit against them, you wouldn't get this nice payout to help you transition to a new life ... . It's like golden handcuffs. You take the money and run."
How he coped: The prospect of hunting for work was "wearing thin," he says. At the same time, he'd become a caregiver for his wife, who later died after a long illness. With investments, a pension to fall back on and no mortgage, Oravez settled into retirement. "I watch my nickels and dimes," he says.
Former employer: General Motors
Employment length: 26 years
Age at termination: 58
It's been nearly 14 years since Dave Lundin took a buyout from General Motors after a 26-year marketing career. Lundin says he was told by the company his skills were no longer needed.
"I didn't want to retire. I couldn't afford to retire," says Lundin, now 72, of Troy, Mich. "I was walking by a dumpster and I thought I might as well throw myself inside. They just trashed me."
After applying for "dozens and dozens of jobs in marketing, at the age of 58, I didn't get any response whatsoever," he says. "I was making about $200,000 a year at GM and I was willing to work for $50,000. I did not get even an interview."
How he coped: Lundin went back to school and earned a second master's degree in counseling. He tried to build a psychotherapy practice but couldn't make it happen, even after a decade. He used part of his 401(k) and pension funds to buy two businesses, one after another. Neither was profitable. One year ago, Lundin landed a full-time job with a clinic, where he earns $40,000. "I have to keep working," he says. "I chose psychotherapy because you can work for as long as you can get clients. It's one area where age is valued."
Former employer: Dun & Bradstreet
Employment length: 26 years
Age at termination: 51
When Bonjet Sandigan was let go in early 2011 from his technology management job in Austin, Texas, it was the third time in a career that spanned 27 years.
"I was the oldest in a group of about a dozen workers and I was the highest paid," says Sandigan, now 53. "I looked the other way because there was no point in doing anything about it. You go through a moment of silence to figure out what you want to do. I said I would not be a victim of a layoff anymore."
How he coped: Sandigan, who had moved to the U.S. from the Philippines, took about a year off, using his severance and savings, to research franchise opportunities. In 2012, he settled on ShelfGenie, which makes custom pull-out shelving for cabinets. He moved to Delray Beach, Fla., and says he expects to draw enough of an income this spring so that he won't have to continue to tap savings. He also plans to buy a second business this summer and hopes he'll be able to retire comfortably in his early 60s.
"You get monthly income," he says of his franchise, "and it's an investment for when you sell it, provided it's a successful business."
See also: Mary McDonnell: At 60, Stardom Strikes