Too Much Experience To Be Hired? Some Older Americans Face Age Bias

Mar 24, 2017
Originally published on March 27, 2017 5:08 am

Most baby boomers say that they plan to keep working past conventional retirement age. But to do that, they have to get hired first. New research shows that can be harder when you're older.

The study was conducted by David Neumark, who is a professor of economics at the University of California, Irvine, and two other economists. They sent out 40,000 resumes for thousands of real jobs. The resumes for any given job were identical except for age.

"The call-back rate — the rate by which employers contact us and say we'd like to interview you — drops from young applicants to middle-aged applicants and drops further from middle-aged applicants to older applicants," Neumark says.

He also found the results were worse for older women than for older men. For women, he says, "the call-back rates dropped by around a quarter when you go from the young group to the middle-aged group. ... And they drop by another quarter when you go from the middle-age group to ... around age 65."

Blatant discrimination against older workers is illegal. For example, an employer couldn't advertise a job saying "people over 40 need not apply." A 50-year-old law called the Age Discrimination in Employment Act prevents that.

But there are other ways employers try to screen for age. For example, one company said that ideal candidates for regional sales jobs would be just two to three years out of college and that applicants with eight to 10 years of experience should be avoided. These were actual guidelines that tobacco company R.J. Reynolds gave to job recruiters. As a result, out of about 1,000 people hired for these positions, only 19 were over the age of 40.

This resulted in a lawsuit — made possible by a job recruiter who turned whistleblower and gave documents with the hiring guidelines to lawyers at the San Francisco firm Altshuler Berzon, which specializes in employment law.

The lawyers contacted the rejected job seekers, including a Georgia man named Billy Carter. He said he'd had no idea why he didn't get the R.J. Reynolds job until he got a letter from the lawyers.

"It made me mad," says Carter, especially when he realized that he wasn't the only one. "I know I could have been an asset to that company. It was very upsetting."

Carter is not yet a plaintiff in the lawsuit. He is one of a dozen people Reynolds rejected who have petitioned the court to join the suit as additional plaintiffs. Currently, the only plaintiff is a man named Richard Villarreal. (Read his complaint.)

R.J. Reynolds and its attorney declined to comment because of the pending litigation. But in court documents, it doesn't deal with the discrimination charge. Its argument is that Villarreal doesn't even have a right to sue, that he waited too long to take action and that the age discrimination law protects people who have jobs — not people looking for jobs.

The courts have been torn on these issues. Reynolds won in federal district court, but Villarreal won on appeal. Reynolds then asked for the full appeals court of the 11th Circuit to hear the case and won that round. However, even the judges who sided with Reynolds did so for different reasons, authoring three separate opinions. Villarreal is now waiting to hear whether the Supreme Court will take his case.

The Villarreal lawsuit has attracted the attention of advocates for older adults. AARP has filed a friend of the court brief, as have some labor economists, including Neumark. Meanwhile, Congress could take action. A bipartisan group of senators has introduced a bill that would clarify the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Whatever happens in Congress or in the courts, discrimination against older workers is going to be a bigger issue if for no other reason than people are living longer lives and wanting — and needing — to work longer, too.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Most baby boomers say they plan to keep working past conventional retirement age, but to do that, they have to get hired first. New research shows that can be harder when you're older. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging, and she joins us now from our studios at NPR West. Hi, Ina.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: OK. New research - what does it say about older people looking for jobs?

JAFFE: It says that age discrimination is a real problem. The researchers sent out 40,000 fake resumes for thousands of real jobs. The resumes were identical, except for age. This is a lead author of the study, David Neumark, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine.

DAVID NEUMARK: The callback rate - which means the rate by which employers contact us and say we'd like to interview you - drops from young applicants to middle-aged applicants and drops further for middle-aged applicants to older applicants.

MARTIN: OK. So Ina, is this legal?

JAFFE: Well, you can't come right out and say people over 40 need not apply. There is a law against that. It's called the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and it's been around for 50 years.

MARTIN: Well, doesn't that protect older people who are looking for jobs?

JAFFE: Well, some think it does, but employers sometimes screen for age without calling it that. For example, one company said that ideal candidates for regional sales jobs would be just two to three years out of college and that applicants with eight to 10 years of experience should be avoided. These were confidential guidelines that tobacco company R. J. Reynolds gave to job recruiters. So out of about a thousand people hired for these positions, only 19 were over the age of 40. You won't be surprised to learn that that resulted in a lawsuit.

MARTIN: So usually if you don't get a job, you don't really ever get to know why. How was this information revealed?

JAFFE: One of the job recruiters turned whistleblower and gave the guidelines to attorneys who specialize in employment law. And they contacted the rejected job seekers. One of them was a Georgia man named Billy Carter. He told me he had no idea why he didn't get the Reynolds job until he got that letter from the lawyers.

BILLY CARTER: It just made mad because it wasn't only me. You know, as far as them are concerned, and then seeing all these other people - and I know that I could have been an asset to that company. It was very upsetting.

JAFFE: Rachel, I should mention that Billy Carter isn't a plaintiff in the lawsuit yet. He's one of a dozen people who've asked the court to join the suit. Right now the only plaintiff is a man named Richard Villarreal.

MARTIN: Any response from R. J. Reynolds? What are they saying?

JAFFE: The company declined to comment because of the pending litigation. But in court documents, they don't deal with the charge of discrimination. Their argument is that Villarreal doesn't even have a right to sue, that he waited too long to take action and that the relevant part of the age discrimination law protects people who have jobs, but not people looking for jobs.

MARTIN: How does that make sense legally? What have the courts said on this?

JAFFE: Oh, the courts have said a lot of different things. The case has been through one trial and two appeals. Reynolds won the latest round, but even the judges who sided with the company didn't agree on the law and filed three separate opinions. So Richard Villarreal is waiting to see if the Supreme Court will hear the case.

MARTIN: So this age discrimination law has been around for over 50 years. And there's still disagreement over who's protected and who's not?

JAFFE: There is. I mean, that's one of the reasons the AARP has filed a friend of the court brief supporting plaintiff Villarreal. So has a bunch of labor economists, including researcher David Neumark, whom we heard from earlier. Also, there's a bipartisan group of senators who have introduced a bill to clarify the law. But Rachel, you know, whatever happens in Congress or in the courts, discrimination against older workers is going to remain a big issue because people are living longer now. And they want and need to work longer, too.

MARTIN: NPR's Ina Jaffe. Thanks so much, Ina.

JAFFE: Oh, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.